Human Rights Commission warns Northeast Town against ‘people zoning’ practice

LITTLE CURRENT—The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) sent a letter to the Northeast Town last week in response to a claim filed by a client of the 19A Water Street (methadone) Clinic sparked by the upcoming closure of the Little Current clinic this Friday, February 15.

Last month, the clinic building owners, Robinson’s Pharmacy Group, were contacted by the Northeast Town, informing them that they must stop dispensing methadone within 30 days at that location (19A Water Street) or the company would be charged with nuisance under the municipality’s bylaw act, leading the company to evict Dr. Bryan Dressler and his methadone clinic.

The town’s actions were prompted by a series of incidents allegedly involving clients of the Water Street clinic, which reached a head when a fight broke out between several clients on the town’s main street in December.

Last month, the Northeast Town council also proposed amendments to the current commercial and residential zoning bylaw to change the definition of a business or professional office to “an office in which any business is carried on or any profession is practiced but does not include a home occupation or a clinic” and limiting the placement of a clinic to “the same property as a hospital or home for the aged.”

The motion for the proposed amendments was accepted, with the next steps in the planning process a public notification and meeting regarding the proposed zoning changes.

A major component of the letter to the Northeast Town from the OHRC is warning the town against ‘people zoning.’

“Any amendment the town considers making to its zoning bylaws must not ‘people zone’,” states the OHRC. “Zoning decisions must not violate the Code (Ontario Human Rights Code) and bylaws should neither target, nor have a discriminatory impact on people with addictions. There needs to be a genuine planning purpose for all decisions, and the town should work to ensure that the needs of people with addictions are accommodated in any planning changes it makes.”

The OHRC also writes that it “questions whether the town has established a causal link between providing methadone services and the events described (the disturbances that led to the clinic breaching the public nuisance bylaw 2002-31).”

“Even if a casual link is found, the town would have to show that it tried to accommodate the clinic’s users to the point of undue hardship, as receipt of health service is a service under the Ontario Human Rights Code,” continues the letter.

The OHRC warns the town against discriminating against the “highly stigmatized methadone client group,” citing section one of the Code, “prohibiting discrimination in services against people with disabilities, including addictions.”

The OHRC states that the proposed actions of directing the clinic to cease dispensing methadone at the Little Current clinic location due to the bylaw breach and the proposed amendments to the town’s commercial and residential zoning bylaw to limit the locations of medical clinics, “raise significant human rights issues with us and we urge you to reconsider.” (The letter can be read in its entirety on our website, www.manitoulin.ca).

Referenced in the letter is a Kitchener case where the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) examined the issues of ‘people zoning.’

“…when asked why counseling services were also being banned from (a particular) area, the city’s planner replied that the community did not want social service users walking through the neighborhood to counseling: ‘That would add to the negative social environment.’ That left little doubt that the focus was not on the uses, but the users.”

The Expositor contacted Northeast Town Mayor Al MacNevin regarding the town’s actions, proposed bylaw amendments and the OHRC letter, however the mayor stated that he was not able to comment on any of the issues at this time, as the letter is currently being reviewed by the town’s solicitor.

The Expositor looked into various other municipality’s methadone clinic planning and discovered a study done by the city of London, which took a similar approach to clinic planning as the Northeast Town is seeking to do.

The London study begins by identifying the issue of planning for methadone clinics and dispensaries and how it has been the subject of “considerable public debate.”

Cited on the first page of the report is a recommendation in response to a coroner’s inquest into the methadone related deaths of four people is Oshawa by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care (MHLTC) Methadone Maintenance Treatment (MMT) Task Force in 2006.

“It is clear that the integration of Methadone Maintenance Treatment programs into communities is generally not well done,” states the task force recommendation. “Clinics and physicians who provide MMT need to engage with and contribute to the community in which they are located. Most physicians who provide MMT are independent business people who are free to establish their clinics where they want, subject to local bylaws. This is also true of pharmacists. However, organizations funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care or Local Health Integration Networks should be required to engage the community when planning to provide MMT services.”

The report goes on to state that “no known policies or regulations have been implemented at the provincial level that would assist local municipalities in planning for the location of MMT services.”

The municipality explained that the purpose of the report was to establish policies and regulations to “direct these uses to the best locations for clients” and to mitigate the potential impacts of these uses.

The city approved an interim control bylaw to prohibit new methadone clinics and dispensaries within London for a one-year period during which the study would take place, which led to an appeal and OMB hearing.

The OMB in its decision ruled that the city’s “comprehensive approach to the issue of methadone clinics is valid,” that “methadone clinics and dispensaries have the potential to generate land use impacts, and concluded that there was no evidence to suggest that the city had failed to comply with the planning act.”

London states in its study’s findings that the importance of planning for a methadone maintenance facility is crucial, “as small waiting rooms, inadequate parking and high-profile locations can create problems of outside lining up for program participants and does not treat patients with respect or provide them with personal dignity when coming to the clinic.”

This last issue stated in the study’s finding directly echoes at least one of the many Little Current downtown business owners letters to the town about the location of the clinic, which states that the Water Street (methadone) clinic is an inappropriate location as it is very public for the clients and does allow them any anonymity.

As the Northeast Town moves forward, it will be attempting to create community-minded zoning for any future methadone clinics, while trying to walk a fine line as to not ‘people zone’ or violate the Ontario Human Rights Code.

Robin Burridge