U.s. Sues Over Zoning

City Code Is Called Biased Against People Who Seek Drug Treatment

April 25, 2009|By Annie Linskey | Annie Linskey,annie.linskey@baltsun.com

The U.S. Justice Department, making good on a long-standing threat, announced Friday that it had filed a civil rights lawsuit alleging that Baltimore's zoning code discriminates against those seeking drug treatment.

The suit attacks a part of the city code requiring applicants for drug-treatment group homes to obtain conditional zoning ordinances from the City Council, a constraint that gives the legislative branch of city government veto authority over those facilities. Other types of disabled housing do not require council approval.

"Persons with disabilities must not be subject to different, and more burdensome, zoning standards because of unfounded stereotypes," said Loretta King, acting assistant attorney general for the civil rights division in an e-mailed statement. "Drug treatment programs are vital to our nation's health. We must not allow discrimination to prevent such programs from opening."

City Solicitor George A. Nilson said he was disappointed with the federal action, noting that the Dixon administration was close to reaching a compromise with City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake on changes to the code. "We were involved with significant negotiations," Nilson said. "The Justice Department was aware of that. We were hoping that the folks there would wait."

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday, seeks an unspecified amount of money for three organizations that sought to open or expand group homes in Baltimore since 2002, saying each "suffered" because of the onerous city zoning code. A Justice Department spokeswoman said it was "premature" to speculate how large such damages could be.

The suit also seeks to invalidate sections of the city code that require conditional ordinances, and would compel the city to issue zoning permits to substance abuse faculties without council approval.

Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon introduced narrowly crafted legislation last year to allow residential treatment facilities housing eight addicts or fewer in any neighborhood. The legislation included steps for the community and members of the City Council to voice concerns without having outright veto power.

A federal remedy might not include such protections and could also become more sweeping, invalidating parts of the city code that require conditional ordinances for emergency homeless shelters, Nilson said.

The mayor's efforts stalled in December when Rawlings-Blake withdrew her support for the legislation, contending that the proposal did not include enough neighborhood protections. She is concerned that drug facilities would be clustered in a few city neighborhoods, such as Lauraville, with larger, inexpensive houses.

In a statement, Rawlings-Blake said she found it "disappointing" that the Justice Department would file a civil rights lawsuit in "the midst of an economic crisis" rather than reach a compromise.

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