JOHNSTOWN - The City of DuBois has been ordered to pay more than $132,000 to a medical firm that was barred by a local zoning ordinance from establishing a methadone clinic in the city's downtown area.
U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson ruled Friday that the city's ordinance is unconstitutional, a violation of the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause. Gibson heard testimony in the case earlier this year.
Gibson posed the key question of the case: whether city officials intended to treat drug treatment facilities differently from other medical offices and facilities.
"On this point, the court finds that the plain language of the ordinance - which specifically prohibits methadone and drug treatment facilities, and no other medical uses, from Transitional and Commercial Highway Zoning Districts - speaks for itself and demonstrates the City's intention to do just that," Gibson wrote.
The long-running dispute heated up six years ago when RHJ Medical Center, owned by an Armstrong County family, signed a 10-year lease with a local businessman for 4,000 square feet of space on Beaver Drive.
At the time, the methadone clinic was located in what was called a Transitional Zoning District under the city's zoning code. The city protested because locating a clinic there, it was contended, violated a section of the state's Municipalities Planning Code that prohibited methadone clinics within 500 feet of a park.
There was a walking trail known as Beaver Meadow Walkway - within 50 feet of the newly-opened clinic - which was considered a park, the city stated.
The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals previously ruled that the methadone clinic restriction was unconstitutional.
With that issue set aside, DuBois then passed City Ordinance 1720, which prohibited methadone clinics and drug-treatment facilities - but no other structures for medical uses - from the downtown.
Gibson ordered DuBois to pay limited damages of $132,801 that covered the medical firm's expenses in setting up the clinic. That money is covered by insurance, DuBois City Manager Herm Suplizio said.
Gibson ordered another payment that could be substantial. He said RHJ "is entitled to reasonable attorney's fees as to its equal protection claim related to Ordinance 1720."
Gibson gave the RHJ lawyers until Sept. 5 to file a motion for fees and expenses. DuBois has until Sept. 25 to respond.
RHJ was asking for more than $2 million in damages that included a loss of profit it may have received had it been able to open a clinic in Dubois, but Gibson, as he deliberated the case, questioned just how large a profit the company would have made.
Compared to the millions that RHJ was asking, the $132,000 doesn't seem like a lot, but RHJ attorney Matthew D. Monsour made it clear that the judge's decision was "definitely a victory for drug treatment centers, and that was the important part of the ruling.
He explained the judge's decision says drug treatment centers cannot be treated any differently than any other medical center.
The ruling was important he said because drug treatment centers "are a reality in today's society."
As was the case in DuBois, the possibility of a drug treatment center in the downtown caused controversy. Monsour said the public recognizes the need for treatment centers but "not in my backyard."
Supulizio was DuBois' mayor when the whole controversy erupted. His reaction as manager was subdued, noting the case was a "big deal," but he said the judge made his findings "and we have to live with them."
RHJ has methadone treatment facilities in Vandergrift and Hunker.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.