Four years after the opening of a methadone clinic in Pikesville prompted protests by residents, fines from Baltimore County officials and swift legislation aimed at shutting it down, the two sides are continuing their argument before jurors in a trial nearing its end in federal court.
The result of the trial could force a change in Baltimore County and, legal experts and drug treatment advocates say, send a signal to other local governments that they, too, need to modify zoning laws for rehabilitation programs.
Catherine H. O'Neill, senior vice president of the Legal Action Center in New York, said news about court rulings in cases that deal with government entities travels quickly.
"It's that kind of influence that is likely to effect change in practices by zoning authorities around the country," she said.
Other policymakers monitoring the case, which could go to the jury as early as today, include Robert Lubran, director of development of pharmacological therapies at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He described the case as a legal challenge to the "NIMBY" - as in Not In My Backyard - syndrome.
"These are important cases," he said. "One of the problems is that they don't happen often enough."
He added that several local governments across the country have changed their zoning laws as a result of lawsuits so that they don't single out drug treatment programs.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, also seeing a principle at stake, has joined in the lawsuit by A Helping Hand LLC against Baltimore County.
The suit claims that a 2002 county zoning law prohibiting state-licensed facilities, including methadone treatment centers, from opening within 750 feet of homes is discriminatory. Lawyers for the clinic have argued that the county law violates the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act.
Baltimore County attorneys have argued during the three-week trial that officials weren't trying to discriminate against drug addicts, especially those seeking treatment. The county was, the lawyers argue, simply employing zoning law to keep certain types of businesses out of neighborhoods, much the way the county prohibits factories and other companies from being located too close to homes.
They've pointed out that methadone clinics are permitted in areas zoned for manufacturing, and that the 2002 law doesn't single out drug treatment facilities, but applies to all state-licensed medical facilities, including kidney dialysis offices.
"I think the key to this case is that there's a big difference between not thinking highly of someone and discriminating against them because of an opiate addiction," Jeffrey G. Cook, a county attorney, argued in court last week.
A Helping Hand is the only private, for-profit methadone treatment facility in Baltimore County. Another methadone clinic, a public-private hybrid, is in an industrial park in Timonium.
The Pikesville clinic is located in a two-story brick building a few blocks from Reisterstown Road. A partially cracking, 3-foot concrete wall separates the clinic's parking lot from about a dozen homes in the Ralston neighborhood, most with flower beds and covered front porches.
Neighbors say they sometimes hear noise from the clinic's clients and see them urinate and vomit on the parking lot.
"I don't think anyone would want this in their neighborhood," said Jim Tracey, who lives in the house closest to the clinic. "It's the vulgar talk, the trash, the public urination, the traffic, the disrespect for me and for my property."
His wife, Annette Tracey, who testified for the county last week, said she also objects to the ACLU's involvement and county taxpayers having to cover the legal costs from the lawsuit. "Why are the clinic's rights more important than mine?" she said.
But A Helping Hand clients say that the clinic is a safe, unobtrusive operation. A security guard inside watches over the clients' comings and goings, they say.
"There aren't people hanging out or people outside selling their take-homes," said one Catonsville man, referring to doses that clinics give to some patients so that they don't have to come to the clinic each day. He asked not to be identified, fearing stigma over his treatment.
The dispute isn't the first methadone-related issue for Baltimore County.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, clinics proposed in Randallstown, Catonsville and White Marsh - all of which were opposed by residents - never opened. Community uproar in Dundalk prompted a clinic to close after five days.
Several lawsuits were filed. And U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake - who is presiding over the current trial - struck down county laws in 2000 and in 2002, ruling that they violated the ADA because they were stricter about methadone clinics than other similar medical practices.