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.”