The thought of heroin addicts coming into the city of Torrington for their daily dose of methadone, a narcotic used to treat withdrawal symptoms, was too much to handle for many residents.
There were the same sort of not-in-my-backyard complaints that echo in towns across America anytime an unpopular proposal comes along, whether it’s a drug treatment facility, homeless shelter or prison.
Torrington officials nixed the plans late last year, citing a lack of parking near the proposed clinic facility. But Hartford Dispensary, a company that runs nine other clinics in Connecticut, doesn’t believe parking is the real reason for the rejection. It has filed lawsuits in both state and federal court claiming the city is discriminating against disabled people.
One thing the two sides do appear to have in common at this point is a desire to settle the case. In interviews with the Law Tribune, lawyers said they would prefer not actually go to trial. The reasoning, for Torrington at least, is simple: Muncipalities almost always lose in cases like this.
"The judges feel, and have said so in open court, that it’s really NIMBY that is the driving force here and they consistently look beyond whatever excuses the towns have had," said Edward Mattison, former director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project who is not affiliated with this case.
According to one published report, Torrington has already spent $9,000 on legal fees in the dispute.
"Given the fact that there are plenty of experienced attorneys who will take these cases on a contingent fee for the plaintiffs, it becomes too expensive for the towns,’ said Mattison. "They’re paying their own legal bills plus the plaintiff’s legal bills in the end."
Mattison pointed to a dispute in West Haven, in which the town eventually paid more than $1 million after getting sued in 2005 for denying a zoning application for a house for recovering alcoholics. In light of the West Haven case, Mattison said he was surprised Torrington officials decided to litigate the methadone clinic proposal.
Diane Whitney, of Pullman & Comley in Hartford, who represents Hartford Dispensary in the Torrington dispute, said there is a need for a methadone clinic in the Torrington area. So her client put together a proposal for the location near Route 8 that used to belong to the Boy Scouts of America.
Whitney said that about 10 days after Hartford Dispensary executives met with city officials to let them know a formal proposal was coming, the city enacted a new zoning regulation called an "overlay zone." The new zone added restrictions for proposals involving addiction services, mental health treatment, alternative incarceration and medical marijuana dispensaries.
"It gave them more discretion to turn us down for more reasons," said Whitney.
Whitney said banning alternative incarceration facilities and medical marijuana dispensaries isn’t necessarily discriminatory. But restrictions aimed at mental health and addiction services violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, in her view. "You can’t make it harder to locate those facilities than to locate other medical facilities in town. In doing so it violates the ADA."
After the zoning commission officially turned down the proposal last fall, Whitney filed lawsuits on Hartford Dispensary’s behalf in state and federal court. The main claim is that Torrington violated the ADA in denying the application.
Michael J. Rose, of Rose Kallor in Hartford, who has been retained by Torrington to defend both lawsuits, said the application was denied simply because there isn’t adequate parking at the proposed location. He said city officials weren’t influenced by the public outcry over the proposal.
"The town is willing to work with the dispensary, but we need to put them in a place where they can adequately park," said Rose. He added that the facility would attract between 70 and 140 addicts per day, with most coming in the morning. "There’s parking for 12 to 14. This isn’t about discrimination. It’s not about any antipathy towards those in recovery. It’s exclusively about proper parking."
Rose is aware that municipalities do not fare well in these types of lawsuits, and he’s hopeful a settlement can be reached. "The town understands its obligations but the town isn’t going to be forced into approving something that’s not appropriate," he said. "We can’t have a building set up to fail."
Mattison said he couldn’t recall very many of these kinds of disputes in the state going to court in recent years. He said there was a similar lawsuit in Ansonia last year over a proposed methadone clinic. He expects that matter to be settled out of court, if it hasn’t already.
Across the country, however, towns are finding these sorts of ADA lawsuits to be costly. The town of Warren, Maine, denied an application for a methadone clinic and ended up settling a legal claim for $320,000. Pittsfield, Mass., agreed to pay $100,000 last year to settle a similar lawsuit. The bill in Berwyn, Ill, came to $650,000.
"Methadone clinics, when properly run, do a tremendous amount of good for the community," said Mattison, who noted that the people going to the Torrington clinic would be local residents. "Their clients are the people who would otherwise make trouble, such as larceny to support their drug habits…. I find this case utterly mystifying."•