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Freedom Healthcare Services, Inc. v. Zoning Hearing Board of the City of New Castle

November 17, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Pellegrini

Argued: October 15, 2009



Freedom Healthcare Services, Inc. (Freedom) appeals an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Lawrence County (trial court) affirming the Zoning Hearing Board of the City of New Castle's (Board) denial of its application to operate a medical clinic because it does not have the requisite parking. For the reasons that follow, we reverse.

Freedom is the lessee of certain property located in the City of New Castle which is zoned C--1 Commercial District. Lot 499 contains a building previously used as a restaurant/tavern, and Lots 498, 522 and 524, adjacent to or across the street, were paved, lined parking lots used as parking for the restaurant.*fn1

Both uses were in existence before the current zoning ordinance was established in 1979.*fn2

Freedom proposes to use Lot 499 as a medical clinic specializing in substance abuse treatment and the remaining three lots as parking for the new clinic, with a total of 52 off-street parking spaces. The medical clinic will dispense methadone to treat patients addicted to heroin and other opiates and will include individual, group and family therapy sessions. The clinic will have one physician on staff as well as a licensed psychologist, several nurses, counselors and administrative personnel. Medical and dental offices and clinics are permitted uses*fn3 in a C-1 Commercial District, and the parties agree that Freedom's proposed use constitutes a medical clinic. The zoning ordinance does not provide a set number of parking spaces for a medical clinic, but a medical office is required to have seven on-site parking spaces for each physician that uses the clinic; however, that parking requirement may be satisfied by off-site parking by obtaining a special exception.

Freedom applied to the City zoning officer to use the property as a medical clinic, but the application was denied because Freedom did not have seven on-site parking spaces on Lot 499, the lot on which the clinic would be located.

Freedom appealed to the Board and sought, among other things,*fn4 a special exception to allow 52 off-site parking spaces on Lots 498, 522 and 524 to support the principal use of Lot 499 as a medical clinic. The standards which Freedom had to satisfy to obtain the special exception are set forth in Section 1331.06(b)(3) of the City's zoning ordinance. That section provides that the Board may grant a special exception to allow off-street parking located on a lot within "200 feet distance from the lot of the principal use located in the same zoning district as the principle use as if a special exception in an adjacent zone. However, the Board shall apply all tests to determine the suitability for such a use and the Board finds that it is impractical to provide parking on the same lot with the principal use." To determine the suitability for the parking use and whether a special exception should be granted, the Board must consider (1) whether the use is compatible with adjacent uses and structures; (2) whether it is suited to the topography and other characteristics of the site; (3) whether it complies with all off-street parking and other provisions of the ordinance; and (4) whether it meets the minimum requirements for the health, safety and general welfare of the City.*fn5 Freedom argued that parking on the additional lots was a suitable use of the property because that property was used for over 30 years as parking lots.

Before the Board, Louis Farmer, Jr. (Mr. Farmer), President of Freedom Healthcare Services, Inc., testified that the proposed methadone clinic would be open seven days per week, patients would come in daily for their medication (which would be dispensed in liquid form), counseling sessions and group meetings with 10 to 20 people present at a time would be conducted on-site, and that he anticipated treating between 200 and 250 patients every day during normal dosing hours of 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. He also testified that there would be one licensed physician on-site as well as a licensed psychologist, administrative support staff, and at least one registered nurse and two licensed practical nurses to actually distribute the methadone.

Neighboring property owners and concerned citizens testified as to potential public safety issues and concerns, including potential loitering of patients in the area, inadequate counseling services, inadequate parking, harm to local businesses, and a potential increase in crime. Many were concerned for the safety of children in the area because there was a daycare center nearby and a school bus stop directly in front of the proposed clinic.

The Board denied Freedom's request for a special exception. First, the Board found that the 52 off-site spaces provided insufficient parking because Freedom's proposed methadone clinic use did not follow the parking pattern of a medical office "as contemplated by our zoning ordinance" because one physician at a medical office would not generate "anywhere near the traffic volume that would be created by the applicants [sic] proposed use" which was to open the clinic for seven days per week, and during the peak operating hours of 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. servicing between 200 and 250 patients per day. Based on that reasoning, the Board determined that even though the ordinance only required seven parking spaces for a medical office, the parking scheme presented by Freedom, even though it had 52 parking spaces on the four lots, would be "woefully inadequate" to handle their anticipated patient load at a "medical clinic."

The Board also found that the health, safety and welfare of the neighborhood would be harmed, noting applicants' "noticeable inexperience" in running a methadone clinic, and believed this could prohibit them from properly administering such a facility and potentially jeopardize the welfare of the community. The Board found that the high volume of cars would be unsuitable for the proposed use and that the clinic's parking and traffic needs would not blend with the existing businesses and residences. Also, "the health, safety, and welfare of the established children present in the area and other pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the area would seriously be compromised by the parking request of the applicant." Freedom took an appeal to the trial court, which affirmed, and this appeal followed.*fn6

On appeal, Freedom contends that that the Board erred in denying its special exception based on inadequate parking. It points to Section 1331.06(b)(2) of the zoning ordinance listing the number of off-street parking spaces required for certain uses and states that "[w]here the use of the premises is not specifically mentioned, requirements for similar uses shall apply." Medical offices and medical clinics are treated and listed separately throughout the zoning ordinance. While Table 1331.06(B) of the zoning ordinance specifically states that use of property as a medical office requires seven parking spaces for each doctor on staff, it does not list the number of spaces required for a medical clinic. Freedom argues that its proposed use of the property as a methadone clinic is most similar to use as a medical office and because it will only have one doctor on site, it is only required to have seven patient ...

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