Established treatment clinic wants to dispense methadone in Johnson City

Tony Casey • Jul 16, 2014 at 2:03 PM

With the proposers of one methadone clinic still embroiled in a legal battle over their right to operate in Johnson City, an existing substance abuse treatment facility is now seeking the right to dispense the controversial replacement therapy drug.

As it currently sits, the Watauga Recovery Center, at 3114 Browns Mill Road, is not zoned to allow a proposed methadone clinic, according to Johnson City Development Coordinator Steve Neilson.

The clinic, which currently treats opiate addiction with prescription Suboxone, is in the process of seeking a certificate of need through the state of Tennessee which would allow them to offer a “treatment center for opiate addiction offering methadone and buprenorphine, which is designated to treat opiate addiction by preventing symptoms of withdrawal,” according to a legal notice published in the July 4 edition of the Johnson City Press.

The legal notice states the methadone treatment would be conducted at the clinic’s Johnson City address and has an estimated cost of $120,000.

Even if the certificate of need is granted, Neilson said the clinic’s location is in the B-4 (Planned Arterial Business) District, and even if it were to be rezoned to MS-1 (Medical Services District), which allows methadone clinics, the location doesn’t meet at least one of the alcohol-related requirements for that zone.

“That address right now, it doesn’t meet the zoning and even if they rezoned it, you can’t be within 200 feet of on-premise or off-premise alcohol sales,” Neilson said. “Well, you’ve got Logan’s (Roadhouse) directly in front of it.”

That doesn’t throw off the enthusiasm of the people at the Watuaga Recovery Center.

Penny McElroy, director of business development, said she assumed it was door to door, which would have the distance between the two entry ways well over 200 feet, but upon learning that it’s stated that the distance is property line to property line, said they’re still going to apply.

“We’re going to apply,” she said. “There are rules and there’s zoning and it’s an uphill climb, but we really believe that we’re doing something that’s going to help people, and our recovery education program is pretty awesome.”

In early 2013, Tri-Cities Holdings applied for a variance through the city for the same kind of facility but were ultimately denied, though it is still playing out through the appeals process.

In a well-attended meeting, the board of zoning appeals decided it didn’t have the authority to act on it, which would have gone against code, Neilson said.

McElroy says though the decision to try to open a methadone clinic wasn’t an easy one, Dr. Ralph Reach thought it to be the right course of action in the pursuit of bettering public health.

“Dr. Reach said he felt it was a good way to outreach to the community because our goal is to treat addicts and to help them learn they can get better,” she said. “Tri-Cities Holdings really didn’t have a whole lot to do with our decision.”

Erick Herrin, an attorney for the city, said because of the plan laid out by Watauga Recovery Center, they might have a better chance in pursuing the certificate of need side of things, noting the differing reputations of Tri-Cities Holdings’ attorney and Reach’s treatment history.

The certification won’t serve Watauga Recovery Center well if they don’t have a location for the facility. Ultimately, Neilson said there are two options for the clinic.

“One, you find another location that is zoned in MS-1 and meets this criteria,” he said. “Or, two, you can propose text change to the zoning code that will allow it through other criteria. I don’t know the likelihood of either, but those are the only options available.”

To Neilson, this looks like it will come down to the city commissioners deciding whether to amend the code or rezone property elsewhere.

Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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