Paging Dr. Broomell: Cecil County Commissioners Differ on Diagnosis of Drug Clinics, Law, Litigation
The paramedics should have been on alert Tuesday morning as three Cecil County Commissioners elevated their blood pressure in a war of words over what constitutes a “clinic” and efforts by Commissioner Diana Broomell (R-4) to push through an ordinance aimed at limiting or blocking a proposed methadone drug treatment facility in the former Rose’s Diner building on Route 40.
Although the proposed zoning law change does not mention any specific location and does not regulate the type of treatment that may be provided by a medical clinic, the measure is clearly aimed at the previously announced facility that has obtained some permits under existing law and begun renovations of the facility. Area residents are strongly opposed to the location of a drug treatment clinic near their community.
Much of the commissioners’ discussion at a worksession Tuesday morning centered on whether the county would face costly lawsuits, and the prospect of losing in court, if the proposed ordinance were to be applied retroactively to an already announced clinic project.
After a lengthy 12/19/11 Planning Commission hearing on the issue, that panel suggested that the commissioners “revisit the definition of clinic with input from concerned citizens and the medical community.” Leading county medical and substance abuse groups have questioned the term “clinic” in the proposal that could impact other medical, dental or even physical therapy facilities.
But Broomell pushed ahead with bringing the proposal to a public hearing at Tuesday’s biweekly evening meeting.
Commissioner Robert Hodge (R-5) questioned why the Commissioners would proceed with a public hearing without following the planning panel’s advice to allow “stakeholders” to address the troublesome ‘clinic” definition.
Broomell said she “disagreed” with Hodge’s interpretation of the planning panel’s statement, and added that she was also “surprised” that all the leading local medical experts still opposed the zoning measure as drafted. Those experts include Union Hospital and the local drug and alcohol advisory panel.
“They’re burying their head in the sand,” Broomell said of the medical professionals. She said they were “ignoring” the problems of “pain management clinics” that can be havens for drug-seeking patients and “abortion clinics.”
Dr. Kenneth Lewis, the president and CEO of Union Hospital, wrote the commissioners in opposition to a proposed clinic-limiting zoning ordinance, saying it was “over broad.” Dr. Lewis, who is both a medical doctor and an attorney, wrote in a 10/17/11 letter that “Substance abuse, like homelessness and other social ills, cannot be addressed by the imposition of zoning requirements.”
Dr. Lewis also said that a “literal” interpretation of the term “clinic” could impose “an undue regulatory burden on primary care and psychiatric practices throughout the county that offer basic substance abuse counseling and management of patients who need to be weaned from narcotics or anti-anxiety medications.” Furthermore, access to medical help for alcohol and drug abuse problems “is already limited” in Cecil County and new restrictions “might force physicians to further limit or terminate this important component of their practices.”
The proposal focuses on parking spaces and buffer areas to limit proximity to churches, schools or residential areas, and specifies what zoning areas would be permitted to house out-patient medical facilities. But Hodge said the practical effect would be to limit location of any medical facility in certain areas, such as northwestern and southern Cecil County, that have been declared “medically underserved areas” that lack even adequate primary care medical services.
Broomell and Commissioner Tari Moore (R-2) got into a heated exchange after Moore began to say she had “searched for solutions” but felt the proposal was too “far reaching.”
Broomell glared and interrupted, “Excuse me, Tari. YOU searched?” Broomell implied that only she had researched the issue thoroughly and examined laws and ordinances in other areas.
“I just feel that there are some on this panel that are being obstructionist,” Broomell declared. “You’re not listening to the public.”
Moore shot back, “I have been a part of this process,” and told Broomell: “You’re trying to make this a very simple issue, and it is not.” Furthermore, Moore said, “We can’t ignore” the opposition of medical professionals and, “If we don’t do this right, we will end up in court and lose.”
Hodge said, “I take great offense to being accused of being an obstructionist on this issue.” He said the county already “spends way too much on lawsuits” and “bad laws will get us in trouble.”
Broomell tried to press county attorney Norman Wilson to predict whether the county would prevail in litigation if the ordinance were enacted and applied to a proposed clinic that had already begun, but not completed, its project. Wilson said he couldn’t predict a court’s decision and there were multiple factors that would be considered in such a case: “Do I think it would be a cakewalk for the county? No,” he said.
Commissioner James Mullin (R-1) sat out most of the brawl but eventually observed that there had been “oodles of public comment” on the issue and going ahead with the public hearing was fine with him: “Let’s hear what everyone has to say.”
Commissioner Michael Dunn (R-3) didn’t say a word during the debate.