BELLEVILLE — A judge on Monday took under advisement a lawsuit over whether an AIDS service organization meets zoning requirements to operate a needle-exchange program.
St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert Haida said after an hour-long hearing that he would review the case and issue a written ruling.
Haida said the merit of the needle exchange program is not in question but whether the agency has met technical requirements.
The legal question is whether an area zoned as a light-industry district allows for such activity, Haida said.
City of Belleville officials said when they found out about the program, they asked Bethany Place in October to stop the program and go before the city's Zoning Board of Appeals for a special use permit. The city filed a lawsuit Feb. 6 and Bethany Place has not applied for a special use permit.
Belleville City Attorney Mike Flynn said the city gave Bethany Place a use variance in 1998 to operate a small community residence with five beds and office space.
"That's all that was allowed," Flynn said.
Flynn said the variance allowed for a community residence and services for people who reside there -- not a program conducted for the general public.
Mark Peebles, the attorney representing Bethany Place, said the nonprofit does not need a special use permit because its services, including the needle exchange program, is allowed under the use variance granted in 1998.
The city recognized when it gave Bethany Place a use variance that the nonprofit does the most comprehensive work in the city to help people with HIV and to prevent the spread of blood-transmitted diseases, Peebles said.
"A major component of (prevention services) is a needle exchange," Peebles said.
Is Bethany Place expected to get a special use permit each time it hands out condoms or offers counseling to clients, Peebles asked.
Haida said the use variance granted in 1998 does not specifically mention a needle exchange program. On the other hand, "food service" is not mentioned either and a community residence probably provides food at some point to its residents, Haida said.
Bethany Place filed a response to the city's suit on March 12 and said the city waited too long to complain that the needle-exchange program violates the city's zoning ordinance, according to court documents.
"It is highly unfair and prejudicial to (Bethany Place) and those clients served by the needle-exchange program to now complain to this court that the program violates the zoning ordinance after so much time has passed."
Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.