Council weighs bill on homes

City hearing scrutinizes live-in treatment centers

May 08, 2008|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Members of a Baltimore City Council committee grilled officials in Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration at a hearing last night over a bill that would permit more live-in drug treatment centers to open in residential neighborhoods.

The proposal - which the administration has argued the city must adopt to avoid a federal lawsuit - has languished in the council for years despite arguments from treatment advocates that the city's zoning code discriminates against the facilities and their residents.

In a hearing that stretched on past five hours and packed the council chambers at City Hall, several members said their constituents are concerned about the group homes - which also include homes for juveniles and other assisted-living facilities licensed by the state - and what they view as a lack of regulation.

"If we don't put up a fight, then what's coming down the pike next for Baltimore City?" asked City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, referring to the threat of a lawsuit. "We need to stop just rolling over and put up a fight."

The legislation would allow residential drug abuse treatment programs and other group homes to 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 the current arrangement is a de facto prohibition because council members will not support individual homes in their district if they are unpopular with voters. In a letter sent to the city last year, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed, stating it would "consider other options, including litigation" if the code is not changed.

"It is now time for Baltimore City to come into compliance with the law," said Ellen M. Weber, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and an activist on the issue who filed a complaint with the federal government. "Baltimore City will simply never be a safe or healthy city until more residential treatment services are there."

The Land Use and Transportation Committee did not vote on the measure last night, and its chairman, council Vice President Edward L. Reisinger, suggested there will be more meetings before the bill comes up for a vote.

Few issues have sparked the attention - or the emotion - of council members as much as the group homes bill, which has repeatedly died through inaction over the past six years.

Because residents of the homes are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, Dixon and City Solicitor George Nilson have argued that if the city doesn't move forward with the legislation, the city could face a lawsuit that would be both difficult and costly to defend.

"We can battle in court or we can put some stipulations in place now," Dixon said. "It's very clear that this a mandate coming from the federal government."

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.

"Based upon what I know about addiction, many of those in its grip need to have a place to go when they make up their minds that they want to change," said Billy Taylor, a former addict who said he has been clean for nearly 21 years. "Please provide a window of opportunity for those seeking to change."

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.

All but one council member, City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., turned out for the hearing, an unusually high attendance that underscores the controversy surrounding the bill. Dozens of residents who came to speak waited for hours while the committee hammered out the details of the proposal with administration officials.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who has also opposed the bill, noted that the legislation makes the homes a permitted use - requiring no vote by the council or zoning board - in the more dense neighborhoods, which council members argued could concentrate the homes in less affluent areas.

"I just can't support that," Clarke said. "It scares me. I'm very concerned about this. I think it's poor planning."

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