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Region's history not favorable to methadone clinics

Nathan Baker • Jul 31, 2016 at 12:00 AM

A topic of discussion for more than a decade, proposed methadone clinics in Northeast Tennessee have frequently faced opposition from residents and officials. Now, Mountain States Health Alliance and East Tennessee State University are facing the same challenges to their own proposed facility.

Since the first methadone-dispensing opioid substitution clinic was proposed in Johnson City in the summer of 2002, locals have feared the negative effects a facility catering to addicts might bring to their neighborhoods.

So far, their efforts to thwart treatment centers offering the synthetic opioid have been successful.

That first effort, the Johnson City Addiction Research and Treatment Center, was the only so far to receive a certificate of need from the state, then under the purview of the Health Facilities Commission, a precursor to the Health Services and Development Agency.

The board’s certificate of need decision was reversed the following year by a Davidson County judge, however, after a legal challenge from the Johnson City Commission. The judge agreed with the city’s claims that the board did not have a legal quorum because member Janet Jones recused herself from the vote, citing her husband John’s connection to the clinic’s opposition groups.

While the case waited in court, the Johnson City Commission approved new zoning regulations for clinics dispensing methadone, restricting them to only the MS-1 zone (medical services district), limiting their operations to between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. and prohibiting them from locating within 200 feet of schools, day care facilities, parks or businesses selling alcohol on- or off-premises.

The commission revisited the regulations 13 years later and removed the time limits and distance prohibitions on the recommendation of City Attorney Erick Herrin, who said the previous leaders may have gone beyond their municipal authority.

“We’re smarter now than we were then, and … since we are smarter than we were about methadone clinics, we’re looking at … what we are missing in this ordinance based on what we know,” Herrin said in 2014.

An uproar from residents near a West Unaka Avenue counseling center also led to new regulations for substance abuse facilities prescribing alternatives to methadone in 2008.

Led by West Davis Park Neighborhood Association Co-Chairwoman Jenny Lockmiller, the group of residents lobbied against Morgan Counseling, which prescribed Suboxone, a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, to opiate addicts.

“Anything that brings a concentration of heroin and opiate addicts to our neighborhood is bad for our neighborhood,” Lockmiller said then. “(It’s) importing durg-addicted people to our neighborhood. It’s adding clients to our drug dealers’ lists.”

Lockmiller is now a member of the Johnson City Board of zoning appeals, a body that reviews clinics’ certificates of appropriateness before allowing or denying their building plans.

After the first failed attempt to bring a clinic to the area, other municipalities followed Johnson City’s example and placed zoning restrictions on methadone clinics.

Washington County’s zoning regulations limit all methadone clinics and substance abuse treatment facilities to the medical services district, stipulates they must be located on arterial streets and prohibits them within 2,000 feet of schools, day care facilities, parks, religious buildings, mortuaries, hospitals, businesses selling alcohol for on- or off-premises consumption, areas devoted to public recreation, amusement catering to family entertainment and any agricultural or residential zoned property.

In 2010, Jonesborough created a treatment facility overlay zone for methadone clinics and substance abuse treatment facilities, and leaders were forced to dispel rumors that the proposed regulations were being considered because of a town plan to open a methadone clinic.

Later that year, Kingsport’s Planning Commission and Board of Mayor and Aldermen scrambled to put a new, more restrictive zoning ordinance in place when Dallas-based Behavioral Health Group moved to open a methadone facility in a vacant restaurant near John B. Dennis Highway.

The city board approved an emergency ordinance boxing methadone clinics and substance abuse facilities into M-2 (general industrial) districts and prohibited them from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, day care facilities, parks, religious buildings, hospitals, mortuaries, establishments selling alcohol, public recreation facilities and residential dwellings.

Then-state Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, encouraged Sullivan County to enact similar regulations, saying “It strikes me this program substitutes one addiction for another. Might it be possible (the people in the program) introduce another illegal substance into the community?” according to Kingsport Times-News reports from the time.

Shipley later said there would be “a fight in the streets” against the clinic and the zoning amendment was “a shot across their bow.”

The clinic’s backers then withdrew their proposal for the facility and vacated their lease for the property.

Taking the advice of the state legislator, the same month the Kingsport methadone clinic application was withdrawn, the Sullivan County Regional Planning Commission restricted clinics to general industrial districts and the Sullivan County Commission approved a resolution opposing “methadone clinics and other nuisance businesses within the borders of Sullivan County.”

Ten years after the first failed clinic’s application, Tri-Cities Holding LLC applied in early 2013 for a state certificate of need to build a methadone clinic at 4 Wesley Court in Johnson City.

Part-owner Steve Kester said the company reviewed 50 possible sites before choosing Wesley Court, a property that met the zoning district and distance requirements of the city’s code.

“We’re the antidote to drug addiction, not the contributor to it,” Kester said while making his case to local leaders.

After a resolution from Washington County commissioners unanimously opposing the facility and an overwhelming showing of opposition from local residents at a public hearing for the clinic, the state Health Services and Development Agency denied the clinic’s certificate of need.

Tri-Cities Holdings filed suit twice, first in Davidson County Court, then in U.S. District Court in Greeneville, claiming the city’s zoning regulations were too restrictive and violated the Americans with Disabilities Act, which classified addiction as a disability. Both cases were dismissed.

Last year, two companies, Crossroads Treatment Center and New Path Treatment Inc., filed for certificates of need to build methadone clinics.

The city’s Board of Zoning Appeals approved Crossroads’ special exception for a facility at 413 Princeton Road, but then Mountain States Health Alliance, one of the entities currently attempting to bring a clinic to the area, sued the company, claiming its real estate broker misrepresented the owners’ plans when buying the property from the hospital system.

Crossroads dropped its plans to pursue the clinic in April.

Likewise, New Path applied for a certificate of need in May, but pulled the request three weeks later. A company representative said he was not authorized to say why the application was rescinded.

In that same month, ETSU and Mountain States announced their plans to build a methadone clinic and counseling center in Gray, part of the college’s larger Center for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment.

The two local organizations’ certificate of need application is now the only surviving application for a methadone clinic in the area.

Health Services and Development Agency officials will consider the application soon, but opposition among Gray residents have delayed the approval process.

More than 300 people, many opposed to the clinic, attended a public meeting at Ridgeview Elementary School. At a public information meeting in July, some of the opponents jeered school and health officials as they spoke in favor of the facility.

After the July meeting, ETSU and Mountain States delayed their rezoning request for the Gray Commons property to allow local officials time to search for another suitable location.

“If the elected officials who have opposed the Gray location wish for us to consider an alternative location that meets the zoning requirements, is easily accessible to those seeking the service, is appropriately located based on city or county priorities and supported by the data, is financially feasible, and for which they are willing to publicly support and advocate, we will give serious consideration to such a suggestion,” a statement from the organizations read.

The rezoning request will now be hear by the city Planning Commission after today’s deadline. Last week, Washington County Mayor Dan Eldridge reported that no suitable alternative site had been identified.

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