Can Northeast Philly residents really stop a Frankford Avenue methadone clinic from opening?

2013-11-24 18.34.04Chris is worried about “crackheads.”

“There’s going to be more bad influences,” the 16-year old says from his Holmesburg porch on a recent summer afternoon. “People who are addicted, it’s going to bring them here, who aren’t here now.”

The young Northeast Philly man is talking about a for-profit methadone clinic that’s attempting to open its doors on the 7900 block of Frankford Avenue, just a couple blocks away from the home Chris lives at with his mom, Sara.

Within moments, Sara comes outside and wants to know why there’s this creepy adult asking questions. I explain.

And she has something to say about the clinic, set to be called ‘Healing Way,’ too.

“There’s too many kids around here,” she says. “It’s peaceful around here.”

A bartender who’s lived in Holmesburg for the past eight years, Sara says she regularly runs into “rehabbers” on the job and knows “what they’re like.”

“I do have particular people who I know go to a methadone clinic, and I just think that’s a secondary drug,” she muses. “Like, you’re on one drug and you go on another to try and get cleaned up. I don’t think it really helps at all. It don’t make it no better.”

Chris and Sara’s views on the matter are not much different from those of many locals who’ve been keeping the proposed Northeast Philadelphia clinic’s doors from opening for over two years. They’ve organized and joined protests and town hall meetings, and stuck posters all over the northeast opposing Healing Way’s mission. Yet community efforts to scuttle the facility for good have largely failed. Stopping a methadone clinic from opening, once it’s been properly zoned and a lease has been set—that’s easier said than done.

The Frankford Avenue stalemate began in January 2011. That month, the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspections issued a C2 mixed-use commercial zoning permit for a 4,830-square-foot property in Holmesburg at 7900-04 Frankford Ave. (the corner of Frankford and Decatur). It’d been vacant for two and a half years, ever since a man was shot and killed outside The Last Call, a former nuisance bar that operated at the site—which, as it happens, is almost directly across the street from a day care.

The Last Call’s problems were something area residents hoped would go away with its closing. But given the social stigma that surrounds methadone clinics—methadone, of course, is a synthetic treatment for opiate addictions; by definition, a methadone clinic attracts clients who have been, or are, addicted to drugs—many locals now assume the corner will only get worse.

During a town hall meeting in Northeast Philly in the summer of 2011, the late Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, who was opposed to the clinic opening, noted she’d first heard about it in an email from February of that same year, which described Healing Way as a “medical clinic.” It wasn’t until that summer that she and other area pols became aware of who the applicant was and what, exactly, the clinic would dispense.

Why’d it take so long to figure out? Mostly because a C2 permit does not require a zoning board hearing.

Over the following few months, several rallies, protests and town hall meetings were held opposing the clinic.

Among the groups officially opposed to the clinic: the Holmesburg, Mayfair, Winchester Park, Holme Circle and Tacony civic associations; the Mayfair Business Association; the Mayfair Community Development Corporation; the Mayfair and Tacony/Holmesburg Town Watch groups; and City Councilman Bobby Henon, state Reps. Kevin Boyle and John Taylor, state Sen. Mike Stack and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz.

And they all showed up to the July 2011 town hall meeting (except Schwartz, who, embattled in the then-furious debt ceiling debate, sent a representative) to speak against it. Sen. Mike Stack may have summed up residents’ thoughts most succinctly when he said there was a time and place for methadone clinics, but: “I know one thing, it’s not here. It’s not anywhere around here…waiting in lines, in nice neighborhoods like this, that’s not the right use of methadone.”

In August, the zoning board agreed to hear an appeal by neighbors. And seven months later, in March 2012, the board voted 4-1 against Healing Way’s owners, Michelle and Alan Yanovsky, who own at least one cash-for-gold business on Jeweler’s Row, ruling that a C2 permit was not applicable.

Healing Way appealed that ruling in turn to Common Pleas Court—which eventually sided with the clinic. That decision paved the road for the clinic to apply for a license from the state health department.

Then, in July, another community gathering was held at Lincoln High School to announce another appeal—to the Commonwealth Court, which means the situation is now set to go on for a lot longer.

It takes place at an interesting time—and not just because of the situation in Northeast Philly. The state is currently investigating methadone deaths throughout the commonwealth.

“First and foremost, let me be straight with you—I’m not against treatment,” says Joe DeFelice, the head of the Mayfair Civic Association and a leader in the Philadelphia Republican party. “With that being said, in this particular location, the way that this was done, it kind of happened out of nowhere. The way I understand it, this gentleman who runs a cash for gold business wanted to open up this clinic. It’s directly across the street from a school, from a daycare, down the street from a library. The residents and businesses that stayed there don’t want it across from them, and we’re going to support our residents.”

DeFelice says he’s known people who’ve sought methadone treatment and they’ve told him they wouldn’t want a clinic in their own neighborhood. Especially a residential one like the 7900 block of Frankford. And partially because of what goes on in and outside the clinics.

The future home of 'Healing Way'

The future home of 'Healing Way'

A “synthetic opioid,” methadone is prescribed to help addicts come off opiate-based drugs, like heroin, morphine and other prescription drugs. It “works on parts of the brain and spinal cord to block the ‘high’ caused by using opiates,” according to WebMD, and can relieve the symptoms associated with opiate withdrawal for 24 to 36 hours, depending on the patient.

It’s a controversial treatment; critics say it’s just another high to replace the original one. But many within the world of drug treatment refuse this line of thinking.

”Successful methadone users are invisible,” Dr. Edwin A. Salsitz, director of the methadone medical maintenance program at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, told the New York Times in 1997. ”Methadone is always judged by the failures.”

Developed in the 1960s as part of a “broad, multicomponent treatment program that also emphasized resocialization and vocational training,” according to the Center for Disease Control, methadone was meant to give patients an option to control their addiction that would be preferable to using illegal street drugs, sharing needles and risking related health issues.

Most advocacy journals note that this remains true. “Much maligned and often misunderstood, methadone remains a wonderful gift.  A gift that has saved thousands of lives, held together families, and brought hope and success to many who felt hopeless and defeated by their addiction,” says the Recovery Help Desk.

It requires the patient to put in real work if they ever want to get off it, and their opiate addiction, for good—which, due to the explosion of mental health drugs in recent years, will likely get worse. As the aforementioned Times article continued:

Still, methadone has its skeptics like Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal, president of Phoenix House, whose nationwide treatment programs strive for total abstinence. ”Methadone is a very useful drug for a limited number of people,” Dr. Rosenthal said. ”It has been oversold for a wide number of people.” Because many addicts abuse multiple drugs and have limited education and job skills, he said, ”they are not going to be chemically fixed by giving them another drug.”

Dr. Salsitz agreed, ”Methadone can’t give you a job, or good manners or make you literate.” But for healing the medical symptoms of heroin addiction, Dr. Salsitz equates methadone with what insulin is for diabetics and other medicines are for high blood pressure.

Canvassing Frankford Avenue on a recent afternoon, I meet Dave B. (who, like Chris and Sara, declined to give a last name). Having lost a brother and “a lot of friends” to heroin, he says, he’s familiar with methadone treatment and the potential abuse—and the individuals he’s seen inhabiting streets around a clinic behave in ways that are problematic. “The doctor gives you your methadone,” he says, “and then you’ve got someone out on the corner saying, ‘I’ve got your Xanies’—which he got from his doctor for an anxiety problem. If you mix Xanax with methadone, you’re higher than you were on the heroin. So they say, ‘I ain’t got to go cop no heroin down in the Badlands [of West Kensington]—I just got my methadone from the clinic, and a few Xanies.’”

And maybe that’s why the opposition to Healing Way has been so hard for so long—even as another methadone treatment clinic opening in the Northeast, on State Road, where it would be more secluded from businesses and homes, faced far less sustained opposition, even though that spot, too, is being appealed.

Both Dave and Sara make note of another clinic, on Parkside Ave. in West Philadelphia, which, in 2009, was investigated by the state due to “suspicious activities” going on outside. One anonymous former addict told NBC 10 at the time: “They sell drugs right out front of the place. It’s kind of hard when you’re first trying to get clean to walk out of the place and they’re selling drugs right there in your face, mostly pills. They sell their methadone bottles, you know, their take-home bottles.”

The owners of Healing Way have repeatedly said they’ll serve about 200 people per day—not 800-plus patients, as opponents of the clinic have estimated—and that they’ll keep security guards on the premises. That hasn’t been enough to convince your average Northeasterner that everything will be OK.

The 7900 block of Frankford Ave.

The 7900 block of Frankford Ave.

But what are the odds, really, of stopping a given business, which happens to be a community health center, from opening in a given neighborhood? It depends on who you ask, and where you are.

The most common way to object to something that’s permitted by zoning is alleging “private nuisance.” To commit the tort of “private nuisance” is basically to use your land in a way that unreasonably interferes with neighbors’ reasonable enjoyment of their own property.

It’s a broad, intentionally vague concept. Even if a tract of land complies with the applicable zoning regulations, it can still constitute a nuisance. Courts usually engage in a balancing test that weighs the reasonableness of the defendant’s allegedly offending land use, the level of interference with the plaintiffs’ enjoyment of their own land, and the reasonableness of the neighbors’ enjoyment of their own land.

Thing is, the law recognizes a big difference between “reasonable” and “unreasonable” nuisance complaints. An unreasonably sensitive plaintiff can’t prevail just because her neighbor’s land use interferes with her own; the interfered-with land enjoyment has to be of a reasonable nature, and the interfering conduct has to be unreasonable—and the definition of reasonable, in this case, has to meet the court’s standard of an “ordinary person’s” definition.

There are other ways to achieve the same result. But most of those options, such as eminent domain, all require the cooperation and involvement of the local government. At that point, it might actually be easier to just rezone the entire area to exclude a methadone clinic.

In searching legal documents from across the country, I’ve been able to find two cases—both of which took place over 30 years ago—that might offer some hint of precedent to this situation.

In a case from February 1974, a methadone clinic in New York City ceased operations after being sued by the state of New York, which deemed the clinic a “public nuisance.” According to the decision’s language, those availing themselves of the methadone program were claimed to be boisterous, insulting and vulgar. Local residents, including children, were allegedly terrorized and have become fearful. In the language of the trial judge, the street had become “a veritable market place for narcotics.” A police department investigation disclosed evidence of drug sales being made within and without the center.

Another case, from Maywood, Illinois in 1982, happened when that village filed a lawsuit against a local methadone clinic company called Health Inc. The town could not prove the business was a nuisance, nor could they prove anything with regard to land use—especially since the court had not allowed testimony by a “land use and zoning expert related to the nature of the surrounding uses in the … district.” Nor did it allow the testimony of a toxicologist.

But while these cases challenged methadone clinics as nuisances, both dealt with already operating clinics. Neither case attempted to deny a methadone clinic’s right to open its doors in the first place, due to the accusation that the business had been zoned incorrectly.

In addition to the arguments being made on appeals, state Rep. Kevin Boyle has introduced legislation in Harrisburg that would give local communities more say when a methadone clinic wants to open its doors in a neighborhood anywhere in the state.

A sign on a local storefront window

A sign on a local storefront window

That legislation would also require the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs to notify all elected officials in the area of the application for such treatment facilities; hold a public hearing; notify property and business owners of the intention; and assess there’s adequate parking for the facility.

Boyle’s bill has not gotten through the legislature, and being as what the state Legislature is, and how it operates, it’s possible the bill will never see the light of day.

In the meantime, the building at the corner of Frankford and Decatur remains closed, with nothing but thin graffiti and protest signs up and down the block telling onlookers that in a year, or two, or three, “crackheads” may fill the neighborhood. “It’s going to be a little bit rough on that corner,” says Dave B. “In that little section, you’re gonna see more people hanging around.”

Most recently, on Sept. 18, U.S. Reps. Bob Brady and Allyson Schwartz asked a U.S. Dept. of Justice Drug Enforcement Official to halt the opening of the clinic! In their letter, the Democrats note that in many cases, methadone just doesn’t work. But until they get a response, the local effort remains in full swing.

“No one has contacted me directly to say that they were in favor of this,” says the Mayfair Civic Association’s DeFelice. “Obviously, reading social media, there have been some people that have voiced a positive view of this. But nothing directly to me. Everything directly to me is, our neighbors and our neighbors of Holmesburg do not want this clinic opening up in their community … As long as the neighbors still have it in them to continue to fight, we will continue to fight.”

PW intern Max Ufberg contributed research to this report.

Follow Randy on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso

3 Responses to “ Can Northeast Philly residents really stop a Frankford Avenue methadone clinic from opening? ”

  1. Rich says:

    Bad placement on picture. Looks like sign says 10 *uck cuts

  2. ed schwarz says:

    I didnt know i died outside of that bar…im alive and well

  3. ed schwarz says:

    Maybe your intern should do a little more “research” as well….this building has been closed alot more than 2 and a half years…i was shot in april of 08….

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