Drug clinic zoning trial hears claims of bias

U.S. case focuses on Pikesville methadone center

July 19, 2006|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTER

A lawyer for a Pikesville methadone clinic told a federal jury yesterday that Baltimore County officials were motivated by stereotypes of drug addicts and had bowed to pressure from residents when they created a zoning law to keep drug treatment facilities away from neighborhoods.

"This is a discrimination case," Steve Barber, a lawyer for A Helping Hand methadone clinic, said during opening statements in what is expected to be a three- to four-week trial.

Jeffrey G. Cook, a lawyer for the county, told jurors yesterday that the 2002 change in the zoning law wasn't a biased attempt by legislators to block drug treatment, but rather "democracy at work."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Wednesday's editions about the start of a trial in a Pikesville methadone clinic's lawsuit against Baltimore County gave the incorrect name for a lawyer in the case. Paul M. Mayhew, an assistant county attorney, delivered the opening statement on behalf of the county and its officials.
The Sun regrets the error.

A Helping Hand LLC filed a lawsuit against Baltimore County in 2002 -- one in a string of challenges to county laws aimed at limiting the locations of methadone treatment centers.

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake, who is presiding over the trial, struck down county laws in 2002 and in 2000, saying that they violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because they regulated the clinics more strictly than other treatment facilities.

The law now in question limits not only methadone clinics but other state-licensed medical clinics, including alcohol and drug treatment centers, from being within 750 feet of residences. A Helping Hand is within 750 feet of homes.

The law was drafted in response to plans by A Helping Hand and another private methadone clinic, which wanted to open within a half-mile of each other in Pikesville in 2002. But the law was crafted, because of Blake's earlier rulings, to include more than just methadone treatment facilities. It was passed by the County Council hours after A Helping Hand opened its doors on Slade Avenue in April 2002.

Cook, the lawyer for the county, said federal and state courts have upheld the authority of local governments to control zoning and land use.

And, Cook said in his opening statement, the county spends $9 million annually to operate a methadone clinic in an office park in Timonium.

"We not only support methadone treatment, we fund it," Cook said.

Although methadone has long been administered to recovering addicts to minimize their withdrawal symptoms from heroin or prescription painkillers, the clinics that dispense the synthetic narcotic have been opposed in Baltimore County and other suburban areas.

Residents in White Marsh, Catonsville and Dundalk have fought plans by private companies to open methadone treatment clinics.

In their opening statements, lawyers for the county and clinic described tense community meetings and picketing by residents who feared crime and a decline in property values would accompany the methadone clinic's opening. Some residents rallied outside A Helping Hand and in front of the home of A Helping Hand's owner in Owings Mills.

The owner, Joel Prell, was the first witness called to testify yesterday. He described the clinic's location as "ideal" for its mission. It is near other medical offices, close to main roads and public transportation and near a police substation.

Prell said the clinic is also on a dead-end street, blocked by a 3-foot-high concrete wall from nearby houses.

Residents are expected to testify about their opposition to the clinic, which has been operating while the federal lawsuit was pending.

Michael M. Gimbel, who was fired in 2002 as director of the county's Bureau of Substance Abuse, is also expected to testify during the trial, which is scheduled to continue tomorrow and then resume Monday.

Gimbel has been an outspoken critic of the private, for-profit clinics, saying that they don't always follow up with appropriate counseling and that their patients often came to the public, nonprofit clinic saying they'd been kicked out of treatment for not paying.

In 2002, Blake struck down the zoning law that required methadone clinic operators to seek special approval from the county, finding in favor of a company called Smith-Berch Inc. that wanted to open a treatment center in White Marsh. However, the White Marsh clinic never opened.

Last year, the county settled for $20,000 the lawsuit filed by START, the other methadone clinic that wanted to open in Pikesville along with A Helping Hand in 2002.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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