A combative attorney and about 130 concerned neighbors made for a raucous Zoning Board of Adjustment hearing last week about a proposed methadone clinic at 7900 Frankford Ave.
Neighbors learned in July that The Healing Way was planning to open a methadone clinic at the site of a former bar at Frankford Avenue and Decatur Street.
Members of the Holmesburg and Mayfair civic associations mobilized immediately, holding a protest at the site and a public meeting at Abraham Lincoln High School.
The activists learned that The Healing Way received permits from the city Department of Licenses and Inspections back in January. The agency applied to open a medical office, which is allowed under C-2 zoning.
A hearing was scheduled for Aug. 31 at the ZBA, 1515 Arch St., and opponents of the clinic boarded two buses at Lincoln’s parking lot to travel to Center City to voice their opposition.
In the end, zoning board chairwoman Lynette Brown-Sow — who listened to arguments along with members Peter Gonzales and Jeff Rush — put off a decision until late this month.
Attorneys Phil McFillin and Dawn Tancredi, representing the neighbors, want the board to revoke the permits, arguing that the intended use of the property is different from the stated use on the application.
“Its services are broader than a medical office,” McFillin said.
Attorney Carl Primavera, representing The Healing Way’s Alan Yanovsky, said L&I made the proper decision.
“The permit was issued as a matter of right,” he said.
Witness Jeanne Klinger, of L&I, provided testimony that seemed to bolster Primavera’s case. The Healing Way applied for the permit on Jan. 4 and received it a week later.
McFillin asked Klinger whether C-2 zoning would allow a clinic, as opposed to a mere office. The L&I official read language indicating that “clinical services” are permitted.
“A clinic would give clinical services,” she said.
When Primavera asked Klinger about parking, she said there are no requirements to offer a certain amount of spaces. She also said there are no provisions for neighbors to balk at the issuance of a permit at the time it is requested.
“The community never gets involved,” she said, adding that she’d issue the permit again.
The community is involved now. Even if the ZBA rules in favor of The Healing Way and appeals are unsuccessful, neighbors plan to lobby the state Department of Health and federal officials to deny a permit to operate.
Residents have local public officials on their side. Among those who attended last week’s hearing were state Sen. Mike Stack, state Rep. Kevin Boyle, City Council candidates Bobby Henon, David Oh and Joe McColgan and aides to City Councilwoman Joan Krajewski, Councilman Jack Kelly and state Rep. Mike McGeehan.
However, The Healing Way has the courts on its side. The state passed a law in 1999 prohibiting methadone clinics from opening within 500 feet of a school, playground, church, park, house or child-care center.
“The federal court struck that down,” said Primavera, referring to a 2007 ruling by an appeals court that ruled the law unconstitutional because it violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Primavera said an applicant for a restaurant doesn’t have to specify whether it will serve Italian, French or Chinese food. Nor does an applicant for a medical office have to list whether it will practice podiatry, psychiatry or optometry, or dispense methadone, which is given to addicts in liquid form to wean them off drugs.
“We have a federally protected right,” he said.
City Council passed a law prohibiting additional medical offices along Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, but no such law exists for Frankford Avenue.
The Healing Way plans to open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. It will operate in 4,830 square feet of space. The staff will include a doctor, psychologist, counselors and insurance administrators.
Yanovsky estimated that the clinic would handle about 200 clients per day. When he told the board that the property was nearest to an empty office, a Sunoco and a 7-Eleven, many in the crowd hollered, “and a day care.”
The businessman explained that he has made $150,000 in improvements to a space that last housed the Last Call bar. He plans to hire security for the inside and outside of the office.
The agency would have engaged the community after it received state approval, according to Yanovsky, adding that there were no secrets about his plan.
“The landlord knew,” he told the board.
However, property owner Dennis Kulp has insisted that he didn’t know what the agency planned when he leased the space. Kulp is owner/broker of RE/MAX Eastern, which is located in the same building.
“We have blueprints. He’s known from day one,” Yanovsky said after the hearing.
Kulp, who is being bashed on Facebook by opponents of the clinic, was unavailable for comment.
The community hopes it scored points with the testimony of Dr. Larry Norton, who operated seven methadone clinics in Philadelphia and Mercer and Gloucester counties in New Jersey in a 12-year period.
Norton explained that clients could place cotton in their mouths before drinking the methadone, then sell it outside the clinic.
“That’s not an unusual occurrence,” he said, adding that the results could be disastrous if the client has AIDS or another communicable disease.
Norton said he always met with the community before opening a clinic.
“I didn’t want to surprise them with two-hundred heroin addicts on their front steps on a Monday,” he said.
As he did during much of the meeting, Primavera tried to steer the issue to whether the permit was properly issued. He wanted to avoid any emotional testimony.
“What he knows about zoning could fit in a thimble,” he said in dismissing Norton’s testimony.
Opponents submitted more than 2,700 signatures of neighbors who don’t want the clinic to open. Patti Vaughn has lived on the 3600 block of Decatur St., a stone’s throw from the front door of the proposed clinic, for 30 years.
“There really is no place for a couple of hundred people to be congregating, waiting to get into this facility,” she said.
Brown-Sow allowed a few individuals to offer brief comments.
Boyle, the freshman lawmaker whose district includes the clinic site, said the location is wrong for numerous reasons.
“There must be ample parking,” he said, citing one.
Henon, who is seeking the seat being vacated by Krajewski, pleaded with the board.
“I’m asking you to side with the people,” he said.
Joe DeFelice, president of the Mayfair Civic Association and a board member of the Mayfair Business Association and Mayfair Community Development Corporation, took a similar approach.
“It’s going to be bad for our community,” he said.
Domenick Parris, who owns $8 Buck Cuts at 7912 Frankford Ave., said property values will decline if the clinic opens.
“They’re going to be let off public transportation, up to five-hundred a day,” he said.
The barber shop used to be The Merry Shop, and Michael Kaplan said the elderly woman who owned the store would be “rolling in her grave” if she knew what was planned for the block.
“Nothing good can come of this,” he said.
He owns Kaplan’s, a furniture store that has been on the block since 1960. He and Primavera clashed repeatedly, starting when he tried to address the crowd.
“That’s disrespectful to turn your back to the board,” Primavera exclaimed.
Some in the crowd called Primavera “pompous” and a “disgrace,” and they were some of the nicer remarks.
Kaplan called Yanovsky a “piece of s–” and told Primavera, “I’ll knock you out if you touch me again.”
Primavera replied, “I’d like to see this man taken out in chains.”
“That’s it,” Brown-Sow said, adjourning the hearing. ••