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Balancing act sought on downtown methadone clinic talks

EVERETT — City Council members hunted for a middle ground last week on whether to allow a methadone clinic downtown in a debate that so far has put public health needs at odds with business community concerns.
Council members faced a decision whether to let such a clinic for opioid addicts in — alienating business owners tense to the idea — or to arbitrarily exclude any
new medical clinics from opening in the central business district.
Instead of going “all in,” the council asked to have two other options brought back in the coming weeks. One is to allow methadone clinics downtown but upstairs to keep them away from street-level storefronts. Another is to prevent any clinic from being larger than a certain size.
The third option is to zone all clinics as “non-conforming.” A non-conforming use does not shut a business down in Everett, but if a location sits empty for two years it cannot reopen as the same kind of business.
As it stands, the city sits vulnerable to a federal lawsuit because the zoning rules specifically exclude opiate treatment clinics, whose users are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act. City attorneys identified that federal law requires the city to consider a methadone clinic no different from a doctor’s office or medical center.
For many council members, the conversation includes how medical clinics fit compatibly with bigger visions for downtown being a destination.
While the council didn’t take a vote, some council members showed where they were leaning at the moment.
Councilman Scott Bader proposed a zoning ban on all clinics, which Councilman Scott Murphy concurred with. Bader said there are many social services downtown already. Murphy noted Everett has worked hard to rejuvenate its downtown in the past decade.
“Clinics might not fit with what we’re trying to achieve in our downtown core,” Murphy said.
Councilman Jeff Moore didn’t go that far, but said he does not favor opening downown to methadone clinics. “It’s about location, it’s about urban context,” Moore said.
Councilwoman Brenda Stonecipher weighed options. She proposed to change zoning to keep clinics off the first floor but not block them entirely, noting the dearth of treatment options.
A zoning restriction on clinics couldn’t prevent a methadone center from buying its way into downtown. If the city makes
clinics “non-conforming,” a center’s way in is to buy an existing doctor’s office to convert it into a treatment center.
While city attorneys identified that downtown’s zoning does not meet federal law, the city has avoided being subject to a federal lawsuit so far. The reason is because Everett has not turned down any permits for a methadone clinic, deputy city attorney David Hall said.
Council members recognize the urgency to fix the vulnerability. “There’s no question” on changing it, Council President Paul Roberts said.
Therapeutic Health Services, which operates a clinic off of Evergreen Way in south Everett, has a caseload of 850 people a year and has a waitlist. The nonprofit has sought to open a center in downtown because it is seen as an epicenter for the opioid crisis.
More than one dozen people spoke at the public hearing.
People’s concerns about people loitering downtown “are real and should not be swept under the rug,” but the concerns should not dominate the conversation, resident Bob Jackson said.
Hotel manager Melissa Springer said she wants to see the opioid problems reduced, but “if the answer is no more clinics in downtown, I don’t have a problem with that,” she said. “There’s plenty of land around.”
“I’m not against methadone clinics ... but our stakeholders are afraid of what’s going to happen downtown,” Downtown Everett Association manager Dana Oliver said.

  

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