Sober Homes: Waiting for Godot

Councilman Jamey Federico’s excuses for the City’s do-nothing approach to Sober Living Homes fool nobody. Unlike neighboring Cities, Dana Point has no ‘Zoning Ordinance’ regulating group homes in residential areas. Only yesterday (Monday, Sep. 16) Huntington Beach City Council decided unanimously to adopt such an ordinance. These ordinances do not ‘target’ home residents but aim to accommodate the interests of both group home residents and the wider community. But while our neighboring cities that have adopted such non-discriminatory Ordinances rack up resounding legal victories – most recently Costa Mesa’s winning a unanimous jury verdict in federal court, which Mr. Federico dismisses with a shrug- sober homes in Dana Point proliferate and the City has no real plan to do anything about it.

For two years, concerned residents have been urging the Council to adopt an ordinance on the Costa Mesa model. Such an Ordinance would not only preserve residential neighborhoods; it would ensure the protection of vulnerable people, many of whom have been exploited in ‘bad’ homes. Strangely however, the majority insists an ordinance faces insuperable obstacles under non-discrimination laws, the Fair Housing Act and the ADA.

It is of course unlawful to ban sober homes entirely from a city. But that does not preclude regulation at City level, provided it does not discriminate. The governing principle of the Zoning Ordinances upheld in federal court is that preserving the residential character of neighborhoods is in the interests of both neighbors and those in recovery. As such, they pass the ‘non-discrimination’ test.  The Costa Mesa model regulates group homes in residential neighborhoods and require sober homes to apply for a City permit (special use or conditional use).  This involves a public hearing and if a permit is granted,  the facility has to follow strict ‘good neighbor’ rules. Crucially (1) to prevent ‘clustering’ of sober homes in a neighborhood, there has to be a buffer zone between facilities, typically 650 or 1000 feet; and (2) Sober homes with six or fewer residents – which otherwise escape all oversight- are covered as well as the larger operations.

Just as the Council majority did to quell opposition to Districting, Mr. Federico invokes the boogeyman of the ’10 million-dollar lawsuit’. The Newport Beach case – from ten years ago- is a bad paradigm. Mr. Federico should blame the NB fiasco on the City Council, not Ninth Circuit;  the evidential record , including unguarded statements from the Mayor himself,  showed the real purpose was discriminatory.  Newport Beach was a ‘poster boy’ for how not to adopt an Ordinance; Costa Mesa shows the way to go. And as for a ‘$ 4 million-dollar gamble’, each success other cities win says otherwise.  Costa Mesa regards the cost of litigation as an investment on behalf of their citizens. Mr. Federico is scaremongering There won’t be any be any $4 million lawsuits if Dana Point adopts an Ordinance. The legal ground is already prepared and not much is left to argue about. ‘Wait and see’ really means ‘do nothing’.  Mr. Federico misses the irony of the same people who threw away almost $2 million at the behest of developers in the Strands litigation now being so concerned to save the taxpayers’ purse.

Mr. Federico touts the supposed success of Dana Point’s policy of suing sober homes that require a State license but fail to obtain one.  The ‘success’ is, at best, mixed; by all accounts, the number of sober homes in residential areas of DP has doubled since 2014. One closes, another pops up. Many facilities do not provide onsite treatment – so don’t need a state license: ergo, no case! The worst offenders get off scot-free. And to be sure, this policy fails to address the huge problem of ‘clustering’ and proliferation and the effect on residential neighborhoods.

We can’t do justice to this issue in the letter columns of Dana Point Times. Dana Point residents deserve to see the matter fully aired in open session at City Council, something the majority refuses.

If the Council will not allow discussion, I invite Mr. Federico, who says the opinions expressed are his own, to debate the pros and cons of an Ordinance with me in a public forum. Citizens can then make up their own minds whether the City is looking after their interests.


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