City to vote today on clinic zoning

Bill would ease placement of drug treatment centers near homes

October 30, 2006|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN REPORTER

The Baltimore City Council is poised to enact a controversial zoning law that would make it easier to open methadone clinics and other outpatient drug treatment centers in commercial areas and in densely populated neighborhoods.

Under the proposed measure, drug treatment centers would be treated the same as medical clinics. It is scheduled for a final vote at today's council meeting. The council gave preliminary approval to the measure Oct. 16 by a 13-1 vote. Councilman James B. Kraft was absent.

Currently, drug clinics need council approval to open anywhere in the city. Under the proposed law, council approval would not be necessary, but zoning permits would be required to open in commercial areas and residential neighborhoods. Community approval would also be necessary for drug clinics to open in densely populated residential areas.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke cast the only vote against the proposed zoning law Oct. 16 and she is expected to oppose it today. She wants the measure amended so medical facilities and drug treatment centers are barred from residential areas.

"I think it's fair to let drug treatment centers open where health clinics are in the city," Clarke said. "But you can't open a health clinic in the middle of a rowhouse block."

The measure has the backing of Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Advocates of the bill say the current law would not withstand a legal challenge.

In August, a federal jury ruled that Baltimore County officials discriminated against the patients of a Pikesville methadone clinic when they enacted a zoning law prohibiting state-licensed medical facilities from locating within 750 feet of homes. The county's law violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, the judge ruled.

Genny Dill, president of the Hampden Community Council in Clarke's district, says she favors abolishing the obstacles that make it difficult for drug treatment centers to open in the city. But Dill says passage of the bill would result in more medical facilities and drug treatment centers opening in city neighborhoods. She's concerned about the increase in traffic they would bring.

Ellen Weber, a University of Maryland School of Law professor and activist on behalf of treatment centers, does not expect a proliferation of drug treatment centers if the law is enacted. Weber says the purpose of the bill is to put the city in compliance with federal law and avoid a lawsuit.

"The city standards are grossly out of compliance," Weber said. "There is no disagreement that [the current zoning law] is violating federal laws. You're treating people with drug and alcohol problems different than others that have medical conditions."

Baltimore has about 60,000 drug addicts and 70 programs at 40 locations in the city, according to Adam Brickner, director of Baltimore Substance Abuse Systems Inc. The city has 12 methadone clinics, with some seeing upward to 600 people a week, Brickner said.

Brickner, a staunch supporter of the bill, says the size of most drug treatment centers makes it difficult for them to open in residential districts.

"There needs to be an economy of scale to make it profitable," Brickner said. "If you have between 50 to 100 people a week coming in for treatment, I think it's a good program."

If enough clinics open, it might relieve crowding at some of the bigger clinics, Brickner said. "What this means for the everyday person is that we can get treatment closer to where they live," he said.

Baltimore allocates about $50 million a year to drug treatment centers, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner.

Many clinics are needed to effectively fight drug addiction, Sharfstein said. Recovering addicts are likely to relapse when they have to travel long distances to get to clinics, especially in bad weather, he said.

Sharfstein said business and residential areas would have input on the location of new treatment centers under the proposed law.

"I think it's going to be very hard for a drug treatment center to exist in an area where people don't want them, particularly a residential area," Sharfstein said. "I don't think that's the approach. In an area with no drug problems, suddenly there is going to be a drug treatment center? I don't think that is a realistic scenario."

Clarke questions why there is resistance to an amendment barring medical and drug treatment facilities from neighborhoods unless there are plans to open them there.

Clarke says she was stunned when proponents of the measure gave her a bar of soap at a council meeting and called for a "clean" bill without amendments.

"I'm just shocked that the advocates have drawn the line here," Clarke said. "I thought there was room for us to compromise and achieve some balance, but they got the votes and they want to vote it clean."

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