Rights of disabled vs. local zoning

Pikesville methadone clinic case in U.S. court

December 04, 2007|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN REPORTER

A federal appeals court will hear arguments today in a long-running dispute over a Pikesville methadone clinic, which pits Baltimore County's zoning authority against a federal law meant to protect the disabled.

Appearing before a panel of judges one level below the U.S. Supreme Court, Baltimore County lawyers will press their case that a lower court's ruling unduly restricts the local government's ability to regulate how land is used - the approach used to try to exclude A Helping Hand methadone clinic.

"The Supreme Court has said again and again that local zoning is the purview of local government," said Ellen Kobler, a county spokeswoman. "We see this as a zoning issue."

Lawyers for the clinic and the American Civil Liberties Union contend that a federal district judge concluded correctly that the county law effectively discriminated against the facility's operators, adding in written filings that "discriminatory conduct by Baltimore County forced the clinic to resort to litigation in order to be able to operate."

The hearing today before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., is the latest episode in a legal dispute centered on the county's policies toward A Helping Hand and other methadone clinics.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, proposed clinics in Randallstown, Catonsville and White Marsh - all opposed by residents - never opened. Several lawsuits were filed - including challenges by A Helping Hand, which operates in the Ralston neighborhood of Pikesville, to county laws enacted in 2000 and 2002.

In August 2006, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake, the judge who struck down the 2000 law, agreed with the clinic that the 2002 law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That law prohibits state-licensed medical facilities - methadone clinics, but also kidney dialysis treatment facilities, for instance - from locating within 750 feet of homes. But lawyers for the clinic argued that the county based its law on stereotypes of drug addicts and had violated protections for the disabled by bending to fears held by residents about drug treatment facilities.

Legal experts and drug treatment advocates have said that the outcome of the Baltimore County case could send a signal to other local governments that they need to modify zoning laws for rehabilitation programs.

A Helping Hand opened in 2005 and, with the agreement of the county, has remained in operation during the litigation. A public-private hybrid program is in an industrial park in Timonium. A private methadone clinic opened near a Dundalk neighborhood.

After Blake struck down the county's law in August 2006, a jury went on to find that the county had not interfered with the individual rights of the clinic's clients, and it awarded no damages. But the jury found that the clinic's right to due process was violated.

Lawyers for the county have argued that officials are employing zoning laws 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 have pointed out that methadone clinics are permitted in areas zoned for manufacturing and that the 2002 law does not single out drug treatment facilities, but applies to all state-licensed medical facilities, including kidney dialysis offices. The law mentions adverse effects on the community from such facilities, such as increased traffic and parking problems.

In the current appeal, county attorneys argue that Blake ruled erroneously that the law had a discriminatory effect and that the county "regarded" clinic patients as disabled. And, they said in their appellate brief, the judge did not instruct jurors on definitions of "meaningful access" under the ADA.

"The overarching question in this appeal concerns whether Congress, in enacting the ADA, intended to completely usurp the county's authority to engage in one of its quintessential functions - control of land via zoning legislation," John E. Beverungen, Paul M. Mayhew and Jeffrey G. Cook wrote in their 55-page brief for the federal appellate court.

Lawyers for the clinic and ACLU argue that the jurors were instructed properly and that the judge appropriately excluded evidence about whether clinic patients can be viewed as a "direct threat" to the health and safety of others.

In their brief, the lawyers say the judge concluded correctly that the law had the effect of being discriminatory, whether discrimination was intended or not.


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