Lawsuits accuse Costa Mesa of trying to drive out sober-living homes

A lawyer suing Costa Mesa says sober-living homes are treated differently from other group residences

Two lawsuits filed in federal court last week allege Costa Mesa discriminated against recovering drug and alcohol addicts by crafting regulations meant to drive them out of town.

The plaintiffs say Costa Mesa ordinances unfairly restrict sober-living group homes for recovering addicts, who are considered disabled and protected under state and federal law.

The latest regulation in question went into effect Thursday after a vote in September.

"That ordinance overhauled the city's zoning code for the singular purpose of banning all but a handful of sober homes from Costa Mesa's single-family neighborhoods," according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Yellowstone Women's First Step House and Sober Living Network.

Yellowstone operates multiple sober-living homes in Costa Mesa, and the Sober Living Network is a nonprofit advocate for operators such as Yellowstone.

Solid Landings Behavioral Health, which also operates homes in Costa Mesa, has also filed suit, according to court documents.

A city spokesman declined to comment.

Mayor Jim Righeimer said Friday that city officials had anticipated a legal fight but needed to act on sober-living homes. The homes have proliferated in neighborhoods, drawing complaints about noise, smoking and crowding.

"It's a billion-dollar industry, and clearly the residents of Costa Mesa want to make sure that these groups are good neighbors, and the council — in a nondiscriminatory way — wants to make sure they're good neighbors," Righeimer said.

Lawyer Steve Polin, who filed Yellowstone's lawsuit, said the new rules are blatantly discriminatory because they treat sober-living homes differently from other group residences. "That's the crux of it," he said.

The ordinance that took effect last week requires sober-living homes to apply for permits to operate in single-family neighborhoods. To earn a permit, a home must have seven or fewer residents, be more than 650 feet from another sober-living residence and hire only people who have been sober at least a year.

Polin alleges that targeting of recovering addicts started even earlier.

In September 2013, the City Council voted to broaden the definition of a nuisance and created stiffer penalties for violations.

"Armed with these new powers, the city's group-home task force started a campaign of targeted inspections and raids against suspected sober-living homes," Yellowstone's lawsuit states.

The suit alleges this included demanding entry into homes without a warrant, leaving a tenant handcuffed on the sidewalk for 20 minutes and issuing $450 citations for infractions such as a missing piece of rain gutter or broken landscape lighting.

At one point, the complaint says, city officials staked out the home of a sober-living executive director, issued her a citation for a lack of fire extinguishers and complained that her trash cans were too full.

Both lawsuits seek damages and an order preventing Costa Mesa from enforcing the regulations.

Twitter: @jeremiahdobruck

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times