Bethany Place: Needle exchange program is allowed under zoning code

News-DemocratMay 10, 2013 

— An AIDS service organization says its needle exchange program is allowed by city code and is asking a judge to reconsider an earlier decision.

Bethany Place participates in a statewide needle exchange program that gives needles to intravenous drug users and has needle disposal bins for used needles.

The program exists to prevent the contracting and spreading of blood-transmitted diseases.

St. Clair County Circuit Judge Robert Haida ruled April 11 on a lawsuit filed by the city of Belleville that Bethany Place does not have a special use permit to operate the needle exchange program.

Haida said the nonprofit at 821 W. A St. is in a part of the city that is zoned as a light industry district. He said the zoning classification means the dispensing of medical supplies and needles for intravenous use, in particular, is not allowed.

Mark Peebles, the attorney for Bethany Place, filed a motion Tuesday asking Haida to reconsider his ruling in the case.

Bethany Place processes, packs and distributes items such as syringes, needles and saline it gets from the state's Department of Health, Peebles said.

Peebles said Bethany Place can distribute these pharmaceutical accessories according to the part of the city's zoning code that allows the "manufacture, compounding, processing, packing or treatment of such products as candy, cosmetics, drugs, perfumes, pharmaceuticals, toiletries. ..."

Peebles said the city's zoning code allows "any accessory use customarily incident to a use authorized by this section."

Meanwhile, the city asked Haida to fine Bethany Place for violating the city's zoning code. When Haida ruled that the group does not have a special use permit for the program, he did not say whether the group should be fined.

The city believes it could fine Bethany Place for more than $1.2 million to date. The fine includes a penalty for every day the group has operated the program, since Jan. 1, 2010.

Bethany Place said the city allowed the program when it granted the agency a use variance in 1998 to operate a small community residence with five beds for AIDS patients and office space.

The group believes it is unfair and prejudicial for the city to say the needle exchange program is in violation now, four years after the program started.

But Mayor Mark Eckert said the city didn't know about the program until neighbors complained in 2012 about finding used needles in their yards and police officers said they saw people use drugs in front of Bethany Place.

Contact reporter Jacqueline Lee at jlee@bnd.com or 239-2655. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/BNDBelleville.

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