Neighbors watched with interest in early July as the shuttered doctor's office at 2326 S. 12th Street in Lower Moyamensing was re-opened. Then, they began to wonder: What kind of neighborhood doctor's office needs a security guard on site?
The answer, apparently, was a clinic specializing in the distribution of suboxone, which, like methadone, is given to people who are addicted to heroin or other opiates. The community organized, the district councilman and L&I were called in (the clinic didn't initially have a use permit), the landlord was approached — and within a couple weeks, the clinic was shut down.
Except, it wasn't.
Rochelle Williams, who had applied for the permit in LoMo under the business name Verdell Enterprises, applied for a new use permit on July 22 for an office at 4949 Frankford Ave. in Frankford. She received the permit the same day. That location is about three miles south of where neighbors have been fighting a very public legal battle to block a methadone clinic, called The Healing Way, from opening. Given that Frankford already is saturated with dozens of drug-addiction recovery houses, it's hard to say how — or if — the community will react to this latest addition.
Lawmakers say that it's time there was more transparency and community input around the opening of clinics like this, which are distributing controlled substances. Councilman Mark Squilla, who was involved in dealing with the Lower Moyamensing location, says he wants to call hearings in the fall to investigate the issue, and has been discussing it with his fellow City Council members. He thinks such clinics should be allowed only by special zoning exception, rather than by right.
In Harrisburg, state Rep. Kevin Boyle has been pushing a bill to make the process, for methadone clinics at least, more transparent. However, his House Bill 422 hasn't moved quickly, in part, says a staffer, because those receiving addiction treatment are a protected class under the Americans with Disabilities Act, so the General Assembly must tread carefully in balancing neighbors' concerns with those people's rights.
Currently, Licenses & Inspections doesn't have discretion regarding whether to issue the use permits, because the clinics are classed as doctor's offices that may operate by right in many locations. After L&I gave a permit to The Healing Way, the Zoning Board of Adjustment overturned the permit. But the Court of Common Pleas, on appeal, reversed the ZBA's decision. Neighbors appealed to Commonwealth Court.
A neighbor a few doors down from the original site, who didn't want to give his name, said the clinic in Lower Moyamensing was out of place on his quiet and well-kept block, near several schools. He wasn't happy that there was no public discourse about the business. "They opened it up and took the customers right in, and nobody had any idea what they were doing," he said. "Cars were double parked, lots of people were coming in and out, and I believe some of the gentlemen and women that were going there, they were a little unsavory."
Squilla says his office had 20 or 30 phone calls the first day the clinic opened; neighbors were especially up in arms about the security guards, which didn't seem like a good sign to them. The community organized several protests, and the local parish priest and civic association reached out to the landlord. "There were rumors flying that it was some kind of methadone clinic; that turned out to be false," he says. "What we end up finding out is it was a psychiatric office but with the main focus on drug rehabilitation and pain management."
"By law," he says, "they could still be there. They decided to move on their own. They just didn't want to deal with the protest in the community."
Rochelle Williams was apparently running the clinic with some sort of oversight from a Dr. Clarence Verdell; so far we haven't been able to track down either of them for comment. But Squilla says they seemed taken aback by the opposition. "What Rochelle said that sort of made me think, was, 'If this happened in my neighborhood, nobody would even care.' And maybe that goes along with the individual community. If the community gets up in arms and tries to protect itself it gets more attention. If that community wasn't so close-knit and people didn't complain to 311, to my office, no one would have known about it. But they were able to get a lot of attention from us and from the police and we were able to look into this matter."
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