Zoning rules revisited

City considers easing laws on treatment center placement

January 07, 2008|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Renewing debate over a controversial proposal that has failed twice before, the Baltimore City Council is again considering legislation that would permit live-in drug treatment centers to open in more residential neighborhoods.

Though the same bill has faced opposition from neighborhood groups in the past, Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration is under pressure from the U.S. Department of Justice to loosen the city's zoning laws - which critics charge are used to limit the centers - or face a federal lawsuit.

Supporters say the proposal would permit an expansion of desperately needed drug treatment options for a city that is among the most violent and addicted in the country. Others say the homes are poorly regulated and drive down property values.

"I find it very frustrating that everybody isn't saying we need more drug treatment and we need it now," said Bow Brenton, an administrator at Tuerk House, a West Baltimore treatment facility for alcoholics and drug addicts, and a supporter of the proposal. "We're in the middle of this addiction epidemic."

Democratic City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said that if all group homes were as well-run as Tuerk House, there would be less opposition. Instead, she said, some homes offer scant oversight of their patients and that the state is not equipped to intervene when neighbors have concerns.

"I am very skeptical because I have group homes in my district right now, and I have no way of controlling their activities," said Clarke, who represents portions of Northeast Baltimore. "Who's going to be responsible for the impact of these group homes on a given neighborhood?"

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, a Democrat who represents portions of East Baltimore, said he believes the federal government has put undue pressure on the city at the same time that it has let the issue slide in suburban neighborhoods.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'm not going to support it," said Young, who added that he has reached out to federal elected officials to ask for a more equitable enforcement of federal housing laws in surrounding counties. "Let's go to court."

Facilities covered by the bill include homes for juveniles and other assisted-living facilities licensed by the state.

Dixon's administration introduced the bill in the council last month after similar legislation failed in 2004 and 2005. Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was mayor at the time, supported the proposal but then pulled the legislation in 2005.

Under the proposal, residential drug abuse treatment programs - which are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act - could open in any residential area as long as they shelter eight or fewer clients. The current zoning code requires City Council approval on a case-by-case basis for any homes with more than four residents.

Advocates say that arrangement is a de facto prohibition because council members will not support individual homes in their district if they are unpopular with voters. And, according to a letter it sent to the city in July, the Department of Justice agrees.

After receiving a formal complaint, the department investigated and determined that the city's zoning code violates federal law. The letter notes that the government will "consider other options, including litigation" if the code is not changed.

Though the cases are not directly relevant, federal courts have struck down similar zoning laws in the past. Last year, a U.S. District Court ruled against a Baltimore County law that prohibits methadone clinics and other types of treatment facilities within 750 feet of homes. That case is now before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Solicitor George A. Nilson, head of the city's law department, has recommended that the City Council approve the pending legislation rather than face a lawsuit.

"It's better to solve these problems legislatively than to turn over the solution to a federal judge," Nilson said.

Under the proposed legislation, larger group homes - with nine or more patients - could open without council or Zoning Board approval in zoning districts allowing dense residential development but would require Zoning Board approval in less densely developed areas.

Ellen M. Weber, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and an activist on the issue who filed the complaint with the federal government, noted that facilities covered under the legislation are licensed by the state.

If residents are concerned about a lack of oversight, she said, they must take it up with the state. Denying group homes the ability to operate through the zoning code, she said, is illegal.

In 2006, the City Council approved a bill to make it easier to open nonresidential drug treatment clinics - such as methadone clinics - in certain residential and commercial areas without council approval. City law now treats drug treatment centers the same as other medical clinics in its zoning.

In 2005, when O'Malley pulled the residential drug treatment legislation, his mayoral administration argued that it needed more time to ensure that the state improved its inspection and oversight procedures.

There has been no change, however, in the way the state handles the licensing or inspection of group homes since O'Malley became governor last year.

Not all council members are against the legislation. City Councilwoman Belinda Conaway, a Democrat who represents the 7th District, said residents who oppose the homes should look beyond their initial concerns to the broader good such centers provide.

"These are our children. At some point in time, we're going to have to work with them," Conaway said. "It's a terrible thing for young people to feel that no one wants them in a neighborhood."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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