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Kensington civic group votes against Prevention Point zoning exception to offer medical services

The medical services that the zoning exception would impact include HIV and Hepatitis C virus (HCV) testing and treatment, HIV medication, substance use treatment, and wound care.

Prevention Point is located at 2913-15 Kensington Ave. (Photo by Jill Bauer-Reese)

A Kensington civic group has voted against a zoning exception that would give harm reduction nonprofit Prevention Point permission to use its Kensington Avenue property as a medical clinic. 

The medical services that the zoning exception would impact include HIV and Hepatitis C virus (HCV) testing and treatment, HIV prevention medication, substance use treatment, and wound care, according to Silvana Mazzella, interim lead executive officer of Prevention Point.

Prevention Point representatives presented to Somerset Neighbors for Better Living on July 1 as a first step to obtaining a permit to use its property as a group medical practice. Somerset Neighbors is the civic organization for the area between Kensington and Aramingo avenues and Lehigh Avenue and Clearfield Street. 

The group voted seven to one against the zoning request and shared the results with Prevention Point earlier this week. 

According to attorney Michael Phillips, who spoke at the civic meeting on behalf of Prevention Point alongside Mazzella, Prevention Point has been using its building to provide medical services since 2015 without the proper zoning approval. Prevention Point’s landlord was supposed to get the zoning exception but failed to do so, Phillips said. 

“[Prevention Point] was under the impression that that had been taken care of. They came to learn that this specific use had not been registered with the city. And so this application is filed, in essence to legalize the use,” Phillips said at the meeting.

Prevention Point’s property, located at the corner of Kensington Avenue and Monmouth Street, is owned by 2913-15 Kensington Ave LLC.  

The city advised the nonprofit of the “need to obtain the zoning permit” earlier this year, according to Cari Feiler Bender, a spokesperson for Prevention Point. 

Marnie Aument-Loughrey, who Mayor Cherelle Parker hired as “community coordinator” for Kensington and is also married to Kensington caucus member Jim Harrity, was vocal at the Somerset Neighbors meeting. 

“Damn, I’m gonna get in trouble for this,” Aument-Loughrey said. “Do we really still want organizations like Prevention Point, and [Sunshine] House, and Courage [Medicine], and all the other ones that are out there feeling that they’re doing good, they’re doing harm reduction, in our neighborhood? Because as a resident, we don’t want them here.”

Augment-Loughrey spoke in direct opposition to the zoning request.

“We want the homeless and the addicts off the avenue ... like we want them gone, so why do we want to give somebody a zoning to take care of a population that we don’t want here?” she said.  

During the 2024 fiscal year, Prevention Point held over 600 HIV primary care visits, 600 pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) visits to prevent HIV infection in people who are at high risk, 2,300 visits for opioid use treatment, and performed 1,450 HIV tests, Mazzella said. 

The nonprofit can still request the exception to the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. Zoning board members will consider the community’s opinion, but according to the city, their decision is supposed to be “based on the law.”

Without a special exception from the city, Prevention Point would have to halt the medical services it currently offers on the property.

The organization could continue its syringe service program, which reduces the spread of HIV and HCV but has been a point of contention in the neighborhood. 

Prevention Point distributed 7.9 million syringes in 2023, Bender said. 

“While we could still go to the zoning board, our focus is on working with the community to listen to their concerns and seek common ground,” Bender said. 

Bender did not confirm whether Prevention Point would reschedule its zoning hearing scheduled for July 17.

At the Somerset Neighbors meeting, some Kensington and Harrowgate residents were critical of Prevention Point and expressed concerns about the used needles they have found on the street. 

“I feel as though Prevention Point has not been good neighbors,” said resident Gloria “Smooches” Cartagena Hart. 

Prevention Point has been engaging in street cleanups six days a week for roughly three hours each since January, according to Mazella and Bender. In the last three years, Prevention Point “has been doing, at a minimum, monthly cleanups,” Bender said. 

Bender also said Prevention Point is trying to distribute fewer needles. As of May 1, the organization has reduced its distribution of packages with 10 needles, handing them out just once a week rather than multiple times each week.

“I’m glad you’re taking out the 10-pack. Because I’m tired of finding needles around here. Kids can get hurt,” Cartagena Hart said. “I commend you for trying to make that change because people are fed up.”

But Sonja Bingham, an active member of the neighboring Harrowgate Civic Association, said she feels Prevention Point’s changes are too late.

“The fact that you’re just now realizing that outreach needs to happen, and you want to make things better, is a little disingenuous ... because our voices have been loud and consistently clear for years,” Bingham said. “I do suffer as a result of the things that your organization is doing.” 

Bingham also alleged that Prevention Point’s second floor becomes “a shooting gallery at night.” Mazzella adamantly denied the claim. 

“I keep hearing this rumor. We have cameras, we have locks on the doors. This is not something that I would agree to,” Mazzella said. 

Despite other residents’ complaints about Prevention Point, one Somerset Neighbors member shared concerns about opposing the zoning request.

Dominic Chacon, who chairs the Somerset Neighbors zoning committee, said removing Prevention Point would not resolve the underlying issues.

“They’re here right now. And they need help,” Chacon said. “And they’re going to be here whether Prevention Point is here or not.” 

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