Baltimore City Paper

Drug Treatment Zoned Out?

About 100 drug treatment advocates staged a rally today in front of City Hall, chanting an unusual slogan.

"What do we want?"

"Zoning reform!"

"When do we want it?"


The rally marked the start of a new phase in a three-year-old battle between neighborhood leaders and the drug-treatment industry. The dispute boils down to the question: who gets to decide where drug-treatment centers are located?

The Baltimore Sun reported today that City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has withdrawn her support for a council bill, submitted in 2007 by Mayor Sheila Dixon, that would allow licensed drug-treatment clinics to locate anywhere any other medical clinic can, without getting permission from neighborhood leaders or the City Council.

Drug-treatment advocates, and the city's law department, say that the bill must be passed in order for city law to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against those with physical or mental disabilities. The U.S. Department of Justice has warned the city that it may seek legal action if the City Council does not pass the bill.

"Licensed drug treatment is not part of the problem," Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein said at the rally. "It is part of the solution." He struck a realist cord, saying that failure to pass the legislation will result in fewer services for people who need drug treatment, plus "an expensive lawsuit" against the city.

Today in Baltimore, licensed drug-treatment providers are effectively required to get permission from neighborhood leaders before locating in a city neighborhood. Each treatment center's new location or expansion requires the City Council to pass a special ordinance allowing it. Critics of the procedure say it allows a not-in-my-backyard attitude to force the clinics into marginal neighborhoods.

"Right now you can't open a treatment center except in a drug-infested neighborhood," says Cindy Shaw-Wilson, clinical counseling supervisor for Universal Counseling Services on Weber Street, and a recovering cocaine addict who has been clean for 23 years.

Citizens groups have often opposed licensed clinics while conflating them with so-called "recovery houses," unregulated boarding houses in which several recovering addicts rent beds, usually for about $100 per week. Recovery houses have been sites of crime and disorder, and neighborhood organizations have often been frustrated by a lack of city code enforcement against them.

But recovery houses are different from licensed drug-treatment centers, says Shaw-Wilson. Licensed facilities all have 24-hour staffing, a curfew, mandatory testing, and professional staff. They also require residents to participate in recovery programs. Unlicensed recovery houses may have some of these features, but none are required to have any of them.

Because they are unregulated, anyone can open a recovery house. They are not affected by zoning law.

Still, one private zoning watchdog says the drug-treatment center bill is problematic, and for a very technical reason: the bulk regulations.

Bulk regulations are attached to zoning bills to give detail about how they will be implemented. Bulk regulations explain, for instance, how big a lot size you need to place, say, a "small group home" in a given zone. "Bulk regulations are how you control how things really go," says Joan Floyd, a Remington neighborhood activist who has followed city zoning issues for 10 years, winning several court challenges.

At its last public hearing last summer, the group homes bill did not have bulk regulations attached. "I said we shouldn't be hearing it right now because no one will be able to understand what's being proposed," Floyd says.

After that hearing, the bulk regulations appeared, but there have been no public hearings on it since. Floyd drew up a chart detailing the regulations (see below). "I don't know how anyone feels about these bulk regulations," Floyd says. "Anyone!

In Floyd's analysis, the bill before the council now will still keep group homes for drug treatment out of the city's tonier neighborhoods, such as Roland Park, because "you won't be able to assemble the land" under the applicable bulk regulations. Neighborhoods like Remington, however, will be fair game--less land is required, and it's cheaper. "It's certainly not an equitable bill," she says, "because you have varying requirements depending on the district."

Drug-treatment advocates say people like Floyd have nothing to fear from licensed facilities.

"I live in Federal Hill," Shaw-Wilson says. "People who are truly in recovery are a lot better neighbors than the yuppie drunks who will pee in my back yard at two o'clock in the morning."

BULK REGULATIONS CHART | Group Homes Bill Zoning activist Joan Floyd drew up this chart outlining the council bill's proposed bulk regulations last summer, saying that Zoning Board of Appeals Executive Director David Tanner had deemed it accurate. It is unclear whether the proposal has changed since then.