Questions remain after city lifts needle-exchange zoning violation

Hillary Brown of the Steady Collective
LOOKING FORWARD: Hillary Brown, director of The Steady Collective, a nonprofit that operates a needle exchange, says a policy at Mission Health is discouraging drug users from seeking treatment there. Photo courtesy of Brown

For over six months, the city of Asheville called The Steady Collective’s weekly needle exchange at Firestorm Books & Coffee a shelter — “a nonprofit, charitable or religious organization providing boarding and/or lodging and ancillary services,” according to the city’s code — and thus in violation of zoning requirements for its West Asheville location. The exchange, which operates for 2 ½ hours every Tuesday afternoon and offers no food or beds for its clients, has vigorously objected to that characterization.

After a lengthy appeals process, the city has apparently come around to seeing things Steady’s way. On March 1, city spokesperson Ashley Traynum-Carson said in a press release the needle exchange would now be considered a medical clinic after it formalized a commitment to have a medical professional on-site during operation.

“Early on, the city considered this classification,” Traynum-Carson explained in an email to Xpress following the announcement. “[H]owever, because operations did not include elements commonly found with a medical clinic, such as including the diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions or having licensed medical professionals available to those seeking assistance, the city did not find this classification suitable. By committing to having licensed medical personnel present and available, the activity more closely resembles a medical clinic,” Traynum-Carson said.

The process by which Asheville arrived at its new position, however, remains unclear. Multiple Board of Adjustment appeals hearings that would have publicly considered Steady’s notice of violation were either postponed or canceled. No members of Asheville’s legal team were made available to Xpress for interviews, and city spokesperson Polly McDaniel said only that officials communicated no written offers to resolve the matter.

Hillary Brown, director of The Steady Collective, characterized the group’s discussions with the city as “taxing.” For example, Brown said, Asheville’s initial offer to rescind the notice of violation would’ve required a medical doctor on-site during exchange hours, a stipulation Brown described as “not based in sound public health research” and not included in any state-level legislation. The final agreement between the city and Steady allows licensed nurses, several of whom regularly volunteer at the exchange, to meet the medical professional requirement.

Brown also said that Asheville hired Raleigh-based law firm Poyner Spruill to provide legal counsel on the zoning violation, but that those lawyers stopped communicating with Steady in January. Xpress first asked the city about the terms under which it hired outside counsel on Jan. 24; officials did not confirm Poyner Spruill’s involvement in the case until March 5, after the agreement with Steady was announced, and have not yet provided the amount spent on the firm’s attorneys.

Steady lost its insurance coverage after receiving the notice of violation, which in turn prevented the organization from completing a $25,000 service contract with Buncombe County or applying for a contract in the 2019 fiscal year. Brown said that Steady can now reapply for insurance but is unsure whether the nonprofit will seek another county contract.

While Steady’s operations are now considered to be in compliance with Asheville’s zoning ordinance, Traynum-Carson says the city’s Planning and Urban Design Department “will lead an inclusionary public engagement process to garner public input on how needle exchange operations should be regulated within city limits moving forward.” Further details on how this engagement will occur or when it will take place were not available as of press time.

“When all this happened in August, I really couldn’t have understood how long this would take,” Brown said about Steady’s notice of violation appeal. “I am Steady’s only employee, and for 6 ½ months, the city of Asheville split my attention. I wanted to be done with this, and I wanted to be able to fully focus on addressing the needs of people using drugs in Asheville.”


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About Daniel Walton
Daniel Walton is the former news editor of Mountain Xpress. His work has also appeared in Sierra, The Guardian, and Civil Eats, among other national and regional publications. Follow me @DanielWWalton

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10 thoughts on “Questions remain after city lifts needle-exchange zoning violation

  1. AVL Matt

    Thanks for nothing to all the enlightened City Officials involved in this process. (It’s telling how no elected official, no city council member, is putting their name anywhere near this. IMO, this makes them all culpable.)

    The Steady Collective was, and will once again be, a bane to the neighborhoods of West Asheville. Consider this wonderful stat posted on The Steady Collective’s own website: “In 2017, averaging seven and a half hours of outreach a week, Steady distributed 73,000 new syringes, collected 13,692 used syringes for proper disposal…” Do the math. Hillary is putting a hell of a lot more trash out there than she is cleaning up. Who will pick up the needles that will litter our streets? How many of our children will need to be stuck those improperly disposed of needles? How many dead addicts on our streets will it take? (Clean needles don’t reduce the harm of fentynal.) The city’s press release states, “the City will work to address public health issues associated with syringe litter, cleanliness and safety throughout the community, including the Haywood Road Corridor.” Really. This certainly wasn’t happening before, and it hasn’t been happening since. Interestingly enough, the press release from the City giving Steady Collective its blessing to open again wasn’t accompanied by another outlining a detailed plan from the City’s on how exactly it will be tackling this complicated and deadly public health issue.

    I question Hillary’s experience and expertise to operate such a high-risk operation. I’m sincerely interested to know more about this. In all that’s been written about The Steady Collective, none that I have seen has addressed this issue. The manner in which The Steady Collective first came into being shows that she’s obviously more comfortable seeking forgiveness than asking permission. With her arrest in 2017 for vandalizing the Vance Monument, it’s also clear she feels that laws don’t apply to her, or that she has much respect for property right of individuals or the community. Neither of these attributes seems to fit with what most would look for in a director of a non-profit that claims to be focused on addressing a serious public health issue. So why is she the best person to direct The Steady Collective? Obviously, none of this mattered to our City Officials.

    Those of us who work and live in West Asheville will be the ones who get to walk around the addicts slumped on sidewalks and in doorways. We will be the ones who need to pray that the needles the addict got on Tuesday aren’t left behind for children to step on as they play in our yards. Shame on you City Officials.

    • Roman Wolfe

      Condoning drug use without concern for public contamination nor treatment of the basic problem seems irresponsible. I ash the City Council what assurances do Asheville citizens have that children will not be exposed to increased needles in the public environment or that every effort is being made to actually help people with drug addiction?


      No her arrest shows that she stands up for principles even when it’s not popular. As we know from our not so distant past, something being legal doesn’t mean it’s moral or in the best interest of everyone, just as something being illegal doesn’t mean that it wasn’t for the better good. I can’t think of anyone better qualified for this position than Ms. Brown. She has a history and a long record of being concerned for public health issues and more importantly for human rights. Your comment, “get to walk around the addicts slumped on sidewalks and in doorways,” seems to disqualify you in that regard.

  2. SpareChange

    A quibble about terminology. I know the term “needle exchange” was coined at the time when such programs first began to operate, and when drug addicts were actually expected to turn in a used needle in order to receive a clean one. But as I understand it, in most such programs today the notion of a required “exchange” went away long ago because it was thought that more clean needles in the hands of addicts (regardless of whether used ones were turned in for safe disposal) would have a salutary effect on the spread of disease such as HIV and hepatitis among the drug addicted and those interacting with them. If an actual exchange is not required prior to being given needles, then let’s use a more accurate and honest description by referring to such services as “needle give away programs” or “needle dispensaries.” I understand that those supporting Steady Collective “encourage” safe disposal of needles, and have organized some needle pick-up days, but if the word “exchange” is no longer applicable to how they operate, it should be dropped.

    More recently, the euphemism “harm reduction” has also come in to common usage to describe the overall work of places like Steady Collective. Reducing harm in the world is obviously a noble goal in any context. My concern, however, is that as soon as one frames one’s own efforts in such language, part of the intent (consciously or otherwise) is to fend off important critical analysis of the inevitable trade-offs associated with any particular program or policy. How can anyone be critical of “harm reduction” efforts? It’s like being critical of “national security, or “the public interest.” The problem lies in how such language helps perpetuate a reality sleeve which is then used as a buffer against any and all criticism. Anyone who questions the location, timing, or substance of such a program is automatically cast as someone opposing harm reduction. Given that such programs are by their nature controversial, given that there are inevitably tradeoffs and consequences for the interests of those residing or doing business around them, they should not be buffered from criticism by enshrouding them in such language.

  3. Enlightened Enigma

    This is what ‘being progressive’ brings us … Progressive = Regressive.

    • SpareChange

      Please don’t conflate mushy, anything goes, life style politics with progressive politics. It’s tantamount to conflating the Trumpist cult of personality and crony capitalism with conservatism. Ain’t the same thing.

      • Enlightened Enigma

        oh it’s progressive politics alright…from city council …

        Progressive = Regressive

        … who wants the bumpersticker?

        • SpareChange

          Yes, and don’t forget… they are also part of the “Deep State!” ;- ) But my point (one you might actually find overlaps your own views by at least a little) is just that soft-left rhetoric, and the city’s avoidance of tough decisions in standing up to those who fetishize people living on the margins, and who would put their interests over those of working class residents and businesses, does not a progressive agenda make.

  4. Enlightened Enigma

    I think you call that the soft bigotry of low expectations … yes, by city council.

    • luther blissett

      The price to run for city council remains $75. “Put your money where your mouth is” remains valid.

      On topic: either you treat opioid / opiate addiction as a public health crisis, or you treat it as a scourge that should be punished and that people with addictions ought to die in ditches. Pick one, and work from there.

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