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Cities, courts grapple with citizen complaints about residential group homes and sober-living facilities protected, and encouraged, under state and federal law

Residents across south Orange County have expressed concern in recent weeks over the presence of sober living and other group homes in residential areas. Due to state and federal laws, however, there is little that cities like Dana Point can do at the moment. Photo: Google Earth
Residents across south Orange County have expressed concern in recent weeks over the presence of sober living and other group homes in residential areas. Due to state and federal laws, however, there is little that cities like Dana Point can do at the moment. Photo: Google Earth

By Jim Shilander and Andrea Papagianis

In recent months, residents of Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano have expressed increasing concern about their neighbors—many of them new. For them, the issue isn’t so much the quality of their neighbors but rather the frequency in turnover of these new residents.

These neighbors come and go from residential group homes—some for children and adolescents, others for disabled adults and many for people recovering from alcohol and drug abuse.

Between the three south Orange County cities there are 25 licensed drug and alcohol treatment facilities. This includes residential homes, as well as inpatient and outpatient facilities, according to a report from the state Department of Health Care Services, which provides licensing oversight for such facilities.

These residential treatment facilities are considered single-family residences in the eyes of both the state and municipal governments, so long as no more than six people are residing in the home. Under that foundation, these dwellings are awarded the same freedoms as traditional single-family residences. But they are licensed by the state and therefore must meet certain standards.

As far as municipal rules go though, there is little to no oversight, or even enforcement measures that can be taken, because city regulations regarding such uses simply do not exist—as group homes, with six or fewer people, are permitted by right in any residential zone.

But area residents aren’t necessarily pleased with that.

In Capistrano Beach, residents have raised issues with a lack of street parking, cigarette butts and late-night noise. But they remained fairly quiet until a young man was found dead inside a neighboring home on Tuesday, July 22. Many watched from their homes and their front lawns as Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies arrived and as the lifeless body was removed from the home.

Officials confirmed a 25-year-old man died in the home, neighbors have referred to as a sober living facility, but the cause of death will not be determined for at least 12 weeks, said Mitchell Sigal, supervising deputy coroner with the Orange County Coroner Division.

In San Clemente, residents near one home on South Ola Vista made the City Council aware of issues they were having in June, when the five-member body unanimously approved spending $5,000 to support legal battles being waged by Newport Beach over group home regulations.

City Attempts to Regulate

Residents of Ola Vista said a number of recent police responses to the home had troubled them. To address their concerns, neighbors encouraged the council to regulate group homes as much as possible.

But Dana Point’s and San Clemente’s hands, along with those of other California cities, may be tied.

Residential treatment centers are not only protected under state laws but also under federal ones, making it difficult for local municipalities to step up to the enforcement plate.

Group homes, mainly those for the disabled and elderly, were encouraged in the 1970s as a way to keep people living in residential areas, enjoying the neighborhood lifestyle and interacting with neighbors.

The concept was expanded in 2000 when 60 percent of California voters passed Proposition 36, or the Substance Abuse and Crime Prevention Act—a law cheered by public health and criminal justice advocates as a way to keep low-level drug offenders out of the state prison system and a means to get them into treatment and recovery facilities.

Since the law’s implementation in July 2001, an estimated 700 treatment facilities have been licensed by the state, according to numbers from the California Drug Counseling Inc., a nonprofit substance abuse treatment center in Pasadena.

With a rise in residential treatment facilities, however, came a rise in resident complaints.

In 2008, the city of Newport Beach passed a zoning ordinance regulating, and in some cases limiting to services of, group homes.

Before the ordinance, group homes were operating freely in residential areas. But after receiving complaints from residents, much like the ones being heard in south county today, the City Council passed an ordinance that forced many group homes out of the city.

“They cared less about their interaction with neighbors,” said Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp, of temporary residents.The city heard complaints from long-time, and long-term, residents who complained about the facilities’ turnover and the way it changed the neighborhoods. The city itself was more concerned with homeowners changing a traditional residential use into a commercial one, he said.

Newport Beach’s ordinance impacted group homes, such as treatment centers, sober living facilities, boardinghouses, sororities and fraternities, by prohibiting new group homes from operating in most residential areas and requiring existing homes to go through a permitting process that new ones would be subject to.

While the law’s language was neutral, group home owners fought the ordinance in court arguing that the zoning rules targeted sober living homes unfairly.

In 2007, before the ordinance was adopted, Newport had 72 group homes. By 2013, there were just 27.

Two treatment organizations operating in Newport Beach, Pacific Shores Properties LLC and Newport Coast Recovery LLC, sued the city in 2009 after their permits were denied. The judge presiding over the case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, ruled in favor of the city.

Operators appealed that decision. In September, three justices with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled Newport Beach discriminated against homes for recovering addicts in enacting and enforcing its group home ordinance.

The appellate court also found the trial court erred in not considering evidence proving the city’s “sole objective in enacting and enforcing its ordinance was to discriminate against persons deemed to be disabled under state and federal housing discrimination laws,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in his opinion.

The federal Fair Housing Act and Americans with Disabilities Act extend to persons recovering from drug and alcohol addiction, Reinhardt wrote.

The court has opened the door for liability issues for cities, Harp said, since the ordinance’s language was non-discriminatory. He believes the court read prejudiced intent where it was not.

Five appellate court judges, who did not hear the case, issued a dissent. Newport Beach now has plans to submit a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. Five cities have signed on in support of Newport’s appeal, including San Clemente, Laguna Beach, Claremont, Costa Mesa and Bradbury.

The city expects to know if the Supreme Court will take up the case sometime in the fall, Harp said.

Residents Raise Concerns Locally

Counselors with Sovereign Health, a treatment facility located in the Talega Business Park of San Clemente, refers those who have left the facility for drug and alcohol dependency to sober living homes to continue their treatment, said the organization’s spokeswoman Penny Alvarez.

However, the organization only refers clients to homes that have been licensed by the state. Other homes, such as sober living homes, are not licensed by the state. There are an estimated 30 unlicensed sober-living or other group facilities operating in San Clemente, according to Brent Panas, the city’s code compliance officer.

A number have popped up recently in the southwest area of the city, he said.

Lisa Gaskin lives near one such home.

Gaskin believes there are “different levels” of such facilities. Some, she noted, regularly have residents picked up in a single vehicle, while others have “cars parked all over the street, many from out of state.” People were “constantly changing,” she said, with turnover sometimes coming in less than a month.

But a larger issue is a lack of neighborliness, she belives.

On a recent day, Gaskin reported, an open window led to her overhearing graphically crude language. Another time, she said her son was watching television upstairs when he heard loud vomiting coming from a neighboring home.

The family is now considering moving away.

Similar complaints have been heard throughout neighboring cities.

But with the final outcome of Newport Beach’s case still to be determined, it is likely local residents will be left with little recourse until a final decision is made—possibly one coming from the nation’s highest court.

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About The Author Dana Point Times

comments (7)

  • It may be that there are several solutions to the problem but probably all cost more. Maybe much more. It seems the problem is that these individuals need re-integration into life, and we don’t want them try to accomplish that in our neighborhoods. I think there is a potential solution, but it involves us, working together to find a way we could solve the problem and help a lot of people. Either that or pay the *(&^ government what we have to get the best solutions for us. Any way you look at it government can do certain things very well, and missing out on those advantages is not a conservative path.

  • A Sobering Discussion

    With numerous editorials and articles surrounding the explosion of alcohol and drug rehab houses in our neighborhoods when are the elected officials going to take note and support the taxpayers who elected them? I think it is easy to turn a blind eye to this subject matter when you aren’t the neighbor who lives next door to one – and who would want to? It is very unfortunate that you work your entire life to save for the opportunity to afford to live in a nice upscale neighborhood only to have those who have chosen to do the opposite live next door, enjoy the sun and swimming pool, park their wrecked – expired tagged vehicle in public view and take all their foul-mouthed phone calls in public view!
    I think all homeowners in Capistrano Beach, San Clemente and Dana Point should be outraged and asking the following questions:
    • How can these “homes” be unlicensed
    • Who is going to provide oversight to assure compliance with the Federal and State law that our cities are so eager to abide by
    • If the Federal regulation states the homes are needed to support local need then why are these people from out of state
    • Who is going to support the homeowners whose lives and investments are impacted

    I’m outraged and furious with the lack of support for homeowners by both the cities and the money-hungry homeowners regarding the quality of our lives and what these homes are doing to our neighborhoods!

    • I am just learning of “Sober Living Homes” first hand directly across the street from my $1.3 million dollar home in of San Clemente. I’ve been here 16 years and worked all my life for this home and retired here. I suppose it’s now worth much less.
      After living acoss the street for 35 years, my neighbors passed away, and new people bought last year.
      At first I thought the new owners had rented their home to some “college students” and that they were using it as a frat house, a few months ago. I didn’t want to be nosy, or start trouble so I never said anything to anyone. These “tenants” come and go all day and half the night. The parking, the noise, profanity, the smoking.. cigarette buttes at the end of my driveway, just like all the articles. Ironically, there is a neighborhood watch sign 20 feet from there driveway, but no one is watching them. They sit in the garage smoking and watch everyone else all day. I can’t go get my mail, or take out the garage cans, and they are watching!

      The license plates were from Oregon and Arizona and California. Most people in this neighborhood are retired and plenty scared. My neighbor who lives kitty corner, lost her husband last summer and now she’s having problems selling because it has to be disclosed that 10 MEN LIVE THERE in a “sober living home”. These “men” change all the time, too.
      Are there any blogs or information you can direct me to? My neighbors and I are baffled as to what to do and where to start. This is so out of character for our neighborhood. Most of my neighbors have been here 35 years. New young families are moving in and what happens to the safety of the 6 and 13 year old girls next door to me?
      Are there any statistics to support that having a “sober living home” in our neighborhood will continue to be a safe environment for Us, since this is one of the greatest reasons we all bought in our neighborhoods? I moved here from Chicago. It seems from what I have read, that some of these people are still doing the same, and are not being clean, quiet, or neighborly, or helpful, but rude and obnoxious and could easily relaspe, causing muliple problems.
      Thank you,
      Beverly Grant

  • With the addition of yet ANOTHER sober living home on my street just this past week, my neighbors and I now have 5 of these homes within 2 blocks of us. We also had to watch as the Coroner removed the 25 year old young man from his apartment. While the message to our children was loud and clear, “Drugs Kill,” we didn’t necessarily appreciate being forced into those discussions and watching it happen right across the street.

    Capistrano Beach seems to be the unlikely recipient of an extraordinarily high concentration of these types of facilities. No one wants to keep these people from getting the help they need, but its time for regulations to be put into play.

  • Drug or alcohol addicts never understand that they are ruining their life as well as the lives of their loved ones.

    • I have one right next door, and I know what s it’s all about , the real estate company’s are doing to us all in the name of Money. not to help the people that go to them . The city knows about them but they are doing nothing about them . San Clemente is starting to do something about them, Dana Point , nothing . Its a shame they are going to destroy the once great place Capo Beach was , its going to be the sober living capital of the country. The problem there is no Good regulations of these places.

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