Drug treatment center subpoenas community associations near neighborhood it wants to locate

Published on: October 10, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: October 10, 2022 9:38 AM EDT

A company that has been trying to open a substance abuse treatment facility on Harford Road in the Hamilton area has subpoenaed at least three neighborhood associations, as part of a lawsuit against the city, to get information on why residents have blocked its efforts for years.

Howard County-based Clinic Management and Development Services sued Baltimore last summer, a month after the Board of Municipal and Zoning Appeals decided that the company did not have the proper permit to open a residential substance abuse treatment center. The company said city officials had told them previously its permit could be extended to cover such a treatment center, but believed the zoning board changed its mind because of complaints from residents.

In a 46-page complaint, the management company is asking the federal court to reverse the zoning board’s decision and pay $2 million in compensatory damages to cover financial losses. The management company bought the building at 6040 Harford Road for $1.7 million in April of 2019. The complaint also says that the board’s decision violated the 14th Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Federal Fair Housing Act.

As part of the lawsuit, attorneys for the management company deposed the neighborhood groups to interview them under oath before the trial. They want to find out why community members didn’t want the center and if it was for discriminatory reasons. They also want to see how city and public officials have reacted to the community’s allegations.

The community organizations that have been subpoenaed include the Westfield Neighborhood Improvement Association, North Harford Road Improvement Association and Lauraville Improvement Association. The subpoenas asked for all documents and emails between the community organizations and public officials who were involved in the case. The management company has also subpoenaed state Sen. Cory McCray, who represents the area, and HARBEL Community Organization, a substance abuse treatment center on Harford Road.

Community members have for years raised concerns about how the new facility would be run and whether it was the best location, given that it would be close to many other substance abuse clinics. They maintain they are not discriminating against those with addictions and worry about the chilling affect the subpoenas will have on whether residents feel comfortable speaking up about issues in their neighborhoods.

It’s part of a newer trend in Baltimore in which more businesses are using the legal system to resolve disputes with neighborhoods, said attorney John Murphy, who represents some of the communities. In 2020, a developer filed a $25 million lawsuit against two Clipper Mill community associations opposed to a new housing development. In 2021, a law firm said it would hold a neighborhood organization in Poppleton accountable for “any further libelous or slanderous statements” and seek recovery of any damages. That same year, 15 Fells Point residents protesting the renewal of a restaurant’s liquor board license received a letter from a law firm saying it would take “all steps necessary to protect its legal rights, including filing a law suit”. Only three residents ended up testifying.

“You have to be not fearful for speaking the truth,” said Angela Jancius, president of Westfield Neighborhood Improvement Association “That’s what the issue is about.”

How did this dispute start?

Clinic Management Development Services began looking into the building on Harford Road in 2018, according to the complaint against the city. The building was being used as a nursing home and assisted-living facility, with a permit for 38 residents and 90 clients in the medical adult day care.

The management company said that it reached out to zoning administrator Geoffrey Veale in November of that year, asking whether the building complied with zoning and land use regulations for a substance abuse treatment center.

The building could operate as a residential facility for 104 residents, and the “conditional use” that was associated with the nursing home could be continued, according to a zoning verification letter from November 2018.

The management company received a building permit in July of that year, and it began a multimillion-dollar renovation of the property. The building, set to be named Fayette House, was going to house 136 patients, with bedrooms that would be occupied at 70 square feet per patient and support about 30 professional and clinical positions, according to a statement from the company.

But when Clinic Management and Development Services formally applied for the use and occupancy permit, it was denied. The company applied one more time in November of 2020.

The denial letter from the zoning board noted that the original conditional use had been abandoned in 2017 and a new hearing would have to be held to reinstate it.

In an email to Jancius, the Westfield Neighborhood Improvement Association president, Veale said the zoning verification letter had been signed on his behalf and was drafted “without knowledge of the history of the property’s use being discontinued for well over a year.”

“That letter in and of itself is not a permit to use the property,” he added. “It is not a permit to use the property and they currently do not have one.”

What do the neighborhood associations have to do with this?

Harford Road community residents say their concerns about the proposed facility were based on what they know about another center the management company has ties to. They also questioned how close it was to Hamilton Elementary/Middle School and said there is an oversaturation of substance abuse centers in the area.

There are at least five organizations that provide similar services in the Northeast region: Belair Health Services, Northern Parkway Treatment Services, KTS Mental Health Group, New Vision Behavioral Health Services and Harford Belair Community Mental Health Center.

Rochelle Lachance, a retired clinical social worker, also did not believe the center was going to have enough staff and resources to be truly effective.

“We cannot support a large, for-profit clinic that is not adequately designed for recovery — which would be in the block directly between our community’s public school and library,” Lachance, a community organization president, wrote in the North Harford Road Improvement Association newsletter.

Lachance and others also raised concerns about Bilal Ali, a former state delegate who is to be the director of Fayette House. Ali’s license as a certified associate alcohol and drug counselor was placed on probation in 2014, after allegations that he breached patient confidentiality rights and acted “unprofessionally” toward dozens of patients and staff. The probation was lifted in 2016.

His clinical professional counselor license was put on probation in March, but Ali does not have contact with patients. House managers would oversee social and physical activities and smoke breaks for patients, said Kevin Pfeffer, president of Clinical Management and Development Services. Ali, who has a doctorate in healthcare administration, was often introduced and described on his website as “Dr. Ali,” which the state board of professional counselors and therapists found to be a violation of their code of ethics.

Nineteen people recently testified in opposition to the proposed treatment center before the Baltimore Municipal Zoning and Appeals Board, according to the company’s lawyer, and there were also 40 letters in opposition. The treatment center operators testified that it already had the permission to use the building as a residential substance abuse treatment facility.

In July of 2021, the board found that there was “compelling evidence” that the management company had a different use than the nursing home and assisted living, so Clinic Management and Development Services would have to apply to the City Council for conditional use.

In the 46-pages-long complaint, the center’s management accused the Westfield neighborhood association and other community members of having waged “a secret, aggressive campaign” against the center that ultimately forced the city’s hand to “obstruct CMDS’ ability” to open its treatment facility. It said community members had “perverse bias, unreasonable fears and irrational prejudice” against people experiencing substance abuse and seeking treatment.

“Baltimoreans have been deprived of the critical services CMDS offers, and CMDS has suffered a multimillion-dollar loss,” the complaint read.

The mayor’s office and the zoning board said they do not comment on pending litigation.

What were the plans for the treatment center?

The management company opened another treatment facility in Baltimore in June of last year on South Fulton Avenue. Also dubbed Fayette House, the center currently houses 47 women, director Ali said, and has a 56-bed capacity, with two to four beds per room. The center has a medical supervisor, a program director and three counselors, Ali said. It also has five dietary workers, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, a general nurse practitioner and six nurses. About 20 people do “security oversight.”

Ali said the Fayette House on Harford Road would have a similar ratio of patients and staff, with a room capacity for 136 men and four to six beds per room. The center was planning to house patients that meet American Society of Addiction Medicine’s criteria, according to the complaint.

Clinic Management and Development Services also provides management services to Turning Point, the city’s largest methadone clinic, which treats over 2,000 patients per day. While the management company does not directly operate the methadone clinic, its connection to Turning Point raises alarms for some Hamilton and Westfield residents.

In 2014, the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene received two complaints about Turning Point, including wait times of up to eight hours for patients seeking treatment, usually waiting outside the building. There were also reports of “violence and danger.”

An investigation found that the center had violated several regulations, including that the program should report “critical incidents” to the state within five business days and that the program should prevent “physical or mental abuse by the program staff.” The state and the clinic settled in an agreement that asked Turning Point to review incident reports and implement policies related to wait time. The clinic also agreed to assign security staff inside the facility and conduct “conflict resolution, health and safety, communication skills and professional conduct training.”

As of June of 2015, the state found that the clinic had complied with all terms of the agreement. But Sen. McCray, who represents the northeast part of Baltimore in the 45th district, said in a letter to the state health commission that Turning Point has had a “less than stellar run” in the neighborhood. He fears Fayette House will have a similar effect in the Hamilton area.

“Home values have decreased, crime has increased, and the facility’s owners have demonstrated a complete lack of interest in partnering with the neighborhoods in which it operates,” he wrote in the letter in August 2020.

While it’s a common concern among residents that treatment centers will drive up the crime rate, a Johns Hopkins University study from 2016 found that there isn’t significant evidence that proves that. Crime connected to treatment centers “is similar to that associated with liquor stores and is less frequent than that associated with convenience stores and corner stores,” according to the study.

How are neighborhood associations reacting to the subpoenas?

John Murphy, an attorney who is representing two neighborhood associations that have been subpoenaed, said the essential point of this legal battle hasn’t been whether the center should or should not be approved, but whether it needs zoning to operate on Harford Road.

A 2012 U.S. District Court case, United States v. City of Baltimore, ruled that drug treatment facilities had to apply for conditional use in neighborhoods with more than 70 residents that are located in a C-2 zoning district, commercial districts like the one on Harford Road.

Conditional use permits come into play particularly when there is a question whether the property seeking permission may have any type of “adverse effect” to the neighborhood. These permits require the approval of the City Council.

Murphy called the subpoena “a very serious matter” and an intimidation tactic to discourage neighborhood associations from speaking up.

“Prior to very recent times, citizens could testify in zoning proceedings without any fear whatsoever of any legal entanglements,” Murphy said. “This really changes that.”

Harris Eisenstein, the attorney representing Clinic Management and Development Services, wrote in a statement that the lawsuit is part of a “routine discovery in search of the truth.” Eisenstein offered to release the neighborhood groups from liability in exchange for their cooperation in September, according to court documents.

During a meeting at a local church basement, about 20 residents were tense about the latest in the legal battle. They asked Murphy for advice on how to respond after the subpoenas.

Wayne Carson, who has lived in the Hamilton Hills neighborhood for over 40 years, said he is concerned the subpoenas may prevent people from joining neighborhood associations.

“That part is rather disheartening,” said Carson, a member of the Hamilton Hills Improvement Association. “I’m hoping that it won’t get any further than it’s already gone.”

The treatment facility first came to his attention in 2020, he said, when a Clinic Management and Development Services spokesperson met with the community to discuss the plans for the center. It was a pretty packed house, he remembered. Most of the conversation was about how the center would be run, not preventing it from coming, Carson said.

Lachance, who received a subpoena from the management company this year, said her concerns had always been about the quality of the the facility. People deserve treatment with adequate staff and security, she said.

“And that’s not Fayette House,” she added.

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