The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has ruled against a group of Holmesburg residents who have been fighting to keep a methadone clinic from opening on Frankford Avenue. Three Commonwealth judges overruled a decision of the Philadelphia zoning board that a permit for the clinic was issued in error. The Commonwealth Court opinion was issued on Thursday.
The Department of Licenses and Inspections issued a permit for a methadone clinic at 7900 Frankford Avenue, to be operated by The Healing Way, in 2011. On appeal, the Zoning Board of Adjustment voted 4-1 to overturn the permit, siding with the neighbors, who claimed that methadone clinics are not permitted in C-2 zoning districts. The Court of Common Pleas later overturned the ZBA, ruling that methadone clinics fall under the broader category of medical uses, which are permitted in that zoning district, which is a classification of the old zoning code.
In its opinion on Thursday, the Commonwealth Court affirmed the Common Pleas court decision, and found “no merit” in the neighbors’ legal claims.
Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, recovering heroin addicts must be treated as disabled persons, the Commonwealth Court wrote. Cities therefore cannot regulate methadone treatment centers separately from other medical uses. The zoning board erred when it sided with the neighbors and ruled that a methadone clinic is a separate, non-permitted use in the zoning code.
The neighbors had also claimed that the use was prohibited because it involved multiple structures on a single lot. The zoning board agreed with that assertion, because the proposed clinic and other uses in the same building would not share an entrance. But the Commonwealth Court rejected that claim, saying the first-floor clinic would be part of the same structure.
The neighbors had also claimed that because methadone clinics did not exist when the old code was written, the use could not be permitted under the medical-office category. But courts have ruled, following the ADA, that treatment centers are a basic medical use. The Commonwealth Court also wrote that a clinic is fundamentally the same as a medical center; both exist for the treatment of patients.
Methadone clinics were not pulled out of the medical-office category when the Zoning Code Commission was overhauling the city’s code, specifically because doing so would have been illegal under the ADA.
Last year, Councilman Bobby Henon, who represents Holmesburg, introduced a bill co-sponsored by Councilman Brian O’Neill that prohibits all new medical offices in Northeast Philadelphia’s 6th and 10th council districts. The bill, which was approved by Council unanimously, was seen as a roundabout way of using zoning to regulate methadone clinics. Another such bill, banning new medical offices in Councilman Mark Squilla’s first district, is currently in committee. It has been scheduled for two hearings, but has not yet been heard. Squilla says he is working with the Department of Public Health to make amendments to the bill.
State Senator Mike Stack is one of a handful of local politicians who have opposed the Healing Way plan.
“I think they’re dead wrong,” Stack said Friday of the Commonwealth Court decision. “I think they’re wrong on the law, because I think it violates zoning restrictions in that there is not sufficient parking.”
“From a common-sense standpoint,” he added, “the neighborhood is unanimously opposed to it, so I think it’s going to be an unworkable plan.”
Councilman Henon, who also opposes the plan, was not immediately available for comment. Representatives of the Holmesburg Civic Association did not immediately respond to a phone call or email.
Jared Brey writes about development, zoning policy, and city government for PlanPhilly.com. He wasn't interested in being a reporter until halfway through a master's program in journalism at Temple University that he intended to parlay into an academic career. His work has appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, City Paper, Business Journal, and Metropolis.