Methadone clinic lease may be ended

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The owner of the office space that a proposed methadone clinic is planning to lease in Oakland Mills said yesterday he hopes the community -- which fiercely opposes the facility -- will step back and allow him 10 days to possibly terminate the lease.

Stephen Whalen, president of Whalen Properties, said he is working with Aktam Zahalka, president of the proposed treatment center, to reach a conclusion about the location of the clinic, which is planned for the Stevens Forest Professional Center.

"I honestly do believe he's trying to work diligently toward finding a new location," Whalen said yesterday, adding that he is encouraging Zahalka to make a decision within 10 days.

Yet even if Zahalka finds an alternative site, about $20,000 could stand in the way of him moving. Whalen said his company wants to be reimbursed more than $14,000 for the money spent on renovating the office space for Zahalka, and Zahalka wants to recoup the $5,587 he has invested in the space.

"We're stuck there," Howard County Councilman David A. Rakes said yesterday. Rakes has been leading negotiation efforts to persuade Zahalka to relocate his facility.

Whalen said that if the community cannot come up with the money, "hopefully we can negotiate a reasonable conclusion."

Zahalka could not be reached for comment. This month, he and Rakes had been working together to find an alternative location for the facility but were unsuccessful.

On July 9, Zahalka said he would open his Human Care Development Service clinic as planned in Oakland Mills. But yesterday, Whalen said Zahalka indicated Monday that he may be interested in two other locations.

Whalen said Zahalka's lease began July 1, but the company will not hold him to that date "as long as he's diligently pursuing alternate locations." If Zahalka does break his lease, Whalen said his company will not financially penalize him.

Zahalka's clinic is not yet fully approved to dispense methadone, a synthetic opiate given to heroin addicts to help control withdrawal symptoms and curb their habit.

Such facilities need certification by the state Office of Health Care Quality, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Oakland Mills community has been united in its opposition to the clinic since late last month when residents first heard that the facility was planning to dispense methadone, objecting to the location being near four schools and three preschools or day-care centers.

The residents have started a petition drive and are sending letters to local and state officials, urging them to help their cause.

More than 250 people turned out at a community meeting yesterday at The Other Barn to learn more about the negotiations and brainstorm ideas to fight the clinic.

The group decided to hold a candlelight vigil, which Columbia Councilwoman Barbara Russell described as having "a very community-spirited, holy overtone."

Oakland Mills resident Karen Gray recommended working to step up enforcement of the "drug free school zone." Those arrested for drug offenses within such zones -- within 1,000 feet of a school -- could face additional penalties.

Although it would not prevent the clinic from opening, enforcement would encompass most of the village center, thus alleviating some of the potential dangers of having addicts there, she said.

Leaders at the meeting discouraged what they thought might be an illegal tactic should the clinic open -- photographing patients going to or leaving the facility.

"I don't think it's appropriate to add to the burden" of people already suffering from addiction, said David Hatch, chairman of the Oakland Mills Village Board.

Other community leaders are also coming forward to help the residents in their battle. Columbia Councilman Joshua Feldmark of Wilde Lake, who did not attend the meeting, said he is planning to propose that the Columbia Association offer the community financial assistance, possibly $20,000, for legal fees to fight the clinic.

A suggestion at the meeting to use the money to pay off Zahalka and Whalen Properties received a resounding "no" vote from the crowd. Russell cautioned that the money had been offered for legal fees only.

Last week, the 10-member council unanimously approved a resolution opposing the facility opening in the proposed site or any similar residential area in Columbia.

"We all agreed it was a good idea" to help the community, Feldmark said earlier yesterday. "Let's literally put our money where our mouth is."

Howard County Councilman Ken Ulman, a west Columbia Democrat, said he has asked the county Office of Law to look into possible legislation that would limit the location of methadone clinics within a certain distance of residential areas and schools.

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