The Wilkesboro Town Council unanimously approved a moratorium Monday prohibiting new medical and dental offices from opening in the town’s central business district for 30 days.
This essentially is downtown Wilkesboro, on both sides of Main Street from the First National Bank building at 301 West Main Street to the Great State Auction Co. building at 104 East Main Street.
Great State Auction owner Randall Woodruff said during the public comments portion of the meeting that he had received a purchase offer for his property at 104 East Main Street from Dr. Wendell Lewis Randall, a pathologist specializing in addiction medicine with a practice on North Main Street, Mount Airy, called “NIT, PLLC.” Woodruff spoke after the moratorium was approved.
“I’m 72 years old, and I’m getting ready to quit, retire and go home,” said Woodruff. “And I have a gentleman interested in purchasing my building at what I consider to be a very fair price.”
Woodruff said Randall has “had a little bit of friction with the Town of Wilkesboro in times past. He had a problem here before, but he wanted me to speak to you and see how you felt about it before he made an offer to purchase my building.”
Wilkesboro Town Manager Ken Noland told Woodruff that because of the moratorium, no permits for new medical and dental offices could be issued in the downtown area for 30 days.
Noland said that after this period, the council would decide whether to allow new medical or dental offices in the downtown. After 30 days, the council could extend, repeal or amend the moratorium. “I think in 30 days we’ll have a decision from the council,” added Noland.
During a council work session on Monday morning, Mayor Mike Inscore asked if Randall’s proposed facility was a “pain clinic,” and Noland said it was. In pain clinics, patients with opioid use disorders are typically treated with the narcotics methadone or buprenorphine.
Noland clarified that the latest moratorium was only for downtown. “Of course, the downtown district is bordered by residential neighborhoods, and that might be a consideration in the decision-making process of where it’s appropriate to have these types of facilities.”
Councilman Russ Ferree added, “We’ve seen (pain clinic) problems in residential areas in both towns, and I’d like for us to consider expanding that (moratorium) to residential neighborhoods as well. We have places in our town that were grandfathered for certain purposes, and continue to be grandfathered and might be used (for medical offices).”
In an interview Tuesday, Randall said the clinic he wanted to bring to Wilkesboro would not dispense methadone, which is considered more addictive than buprenorphine.
“Several members of the (Wilkesboro) Board of Adjustment considered the clinic to be a methadone clinic in the past. This is untrue, since I do not possess a special exemption or license to operate such a facility. It is not my intention to offer that type of facility at all,” said Randall.
The ordinance with the moratorium approved Monday says “the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the town as well as systematic town planning could be jeopardized” by allowing a medical or dental office to be built in the town’s B1 central business district, which is the downtown area with the latest moratorium.
There are currently no medical or dental offices in B1, but they are allowed under the town’s current zoning code without restrictions in B2 (general business) districts, mainly along U.S. 421, and under conditions established by the town planning board in B1 and B3 (limited business) districts. They aren’t permitted in residential districts.
The moratorium says “much of the historic building stock in the B1 central business District may not be best suited to meet the needs of the affirmed or others in need of ADA (handicapped) compliant facilities.”
The ordinance with the moratorium directs the town planning board to meet and consider the impact of removing medical and dental offices from the B1 central business district and report its findings at the council’s Nov. 4 meeting.
“By statute, the planning board always has the responsibility to meet and hear prior to a rezoning process by the town,” said Noland during the work session. “Next month you can choose whichever way you think is most appropriate for Wilkesboro.” The ordinance with the moratorium directs the town staff to announce a public hearing concerning removal of medical and dental offices from the B1 district list of facilities allowed if granted a conditional-use permit. No public hearing has been set.
In March 2018, the council approved an “emergency ordinance” that placed a moratorium preventing new medical and dental offices that prescribe and/or dispense medication from opening anywhere in Wilkesboro for 180 days. In addition to only applying to downtown, the latest moratorium doesn’t include “medical and dental offices that prescribe and/or dispense medication” as an identifier.
The moratorium approved in 2018 also was in response to Randall inquiring about opening a pain clinic in downtown Wilkesboro, Noland said Tuesday.
The earlier moratorium expired without the council taking any further action or making changes to the zoning code.
“We didn’t take action at the time because our goal was to separate the types of medical facilities that can appear in a location. The planning department could not find a way to do that, legally,” said Noland during the work session.
Noland referred to the potential sale of the Great State Auction property to Randall during the work session when he said, “There’s a concern that somebody may be wanting to open a medical office in the downtown, specifically one that services those who are addicted to other types of medication.”
The current and 2018 moratoriums cited “substantial questions and concerns” about the impact of medical and dental offices on small towns like Wilkesboro, “including the adequacy of streets for additional traffic, alternate transportation, compatibility with residential and commercial zones and any potential health and safety impacts upon the community.”
North Wilkesboro has a pain clinic in its downtown area, Bethany Medical Center, which opened in November 2018 at 924 Main Street. Bethany’s website says it dispenses Suboxone and Subutex in the medical treatment of opioid use disorder.
It also has the North Wilkesboro Comprehensive Treatment Center, a pain clinic off N.C. 18 North at 241 Northview Plaza. Its website describes it as a Suboxone and methadone clinic. This is one of two Western Carolina Comprehensive Treatment Centers with opioid use disorder programs. The other is in Asheville.
Editor’s Note: More information about Randall and his proposed clinic is in the sidebar article with this story.