Costa Mesa Planning Commission rejects permit applications for Westside sober-living home

The Costa Mesa Planning Commission voted Monday night to reject two permit applications from a sober-living operator seeking to keep open a facility on the city’s Westside.

With a pair of 4-0 votes, the commission denied the requests from Clean Path Recovery for its sober-living home on two adjoining properties at 574 and 578 Joann St.

Commissioner Jeffrey Harlan, an attorney, recused himself from the hearing because he represents another property owner in the area.

The commission’s decisions can be appealed to the City Council within seven days.

Clean Path, which has operated the facility since June 2014, sought two conditional use permits to operate it with up to 30 residents in eight units on the properties.

However, that set-up conflicts with Costa Mesa codes that say sober-living homes may occupy only a single parcel, according to city staff.

Officials from Clean Path urged the commission to make an exception, saying their organization provides a much-needed service and that they’ve been a good neighbor.

Sober-living homes typically house recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, who are considered disabled under state and federal law.

“We want to help the community — we want to help the people that are on the streets,” said Lee Heiligman, Clean Path’s chief executive and founder. “We want to come up with some sort of regulation, some sort of ordinance. I’m willing to work with you guys, but closing down or not approving quality sober-living providers is really doing a disservice to our community.”

But after more than an hour and a half of testimony and discussion Monday, commissioners determined they hadn’t heard enough to persuade them to waive the rule, even though Clean Path appears to be a quality operator.

A major hang-up, from the commission’s perspective, is that the two parcels were developed decades ago and are “legal nonconforming,” meaning they don’t meet some modern zoning standards.

The parcels don’t meet current requirements regarding lot size, parking and open space, according to city staff, and there are more units built on each parcel than what would be allowed today.

Since conditional use permits run with the land, Vice Chairman Byron de Arakal said he was concerned that approving them for Clean Path could be a disincentive for potential future owners from bringing the property up to code.

“I think legal nonconforming parcels are fine but, ultimately, I would think it’d be the objective of any jurisdiction that, over time, legal nonconforming lots would conform,” he said.

Commissioner Carla Navarro Woods, who lives near the site, said she sees “a lot of drug use ... a lot of alcohol abuse, a lot of drug dealing” in the area.

Though she said she wasn’t implying that those activities are because of the sober-living home, Navarro Woods questioned whether it makes sense to locate the facility where such activities are common.

“I also believe that the surrounding neighborhood really makes this particular population a little bit more vulnerable to what they’re dealing with,” she said. “I feel like I can comment on that because my family has been impacted by it.”

Robert Mann, public relations director for Clean Path, said sober-living homes are an integral step on the road to recovery from addiction.

Such services are especially vital, he said, considering the nation is in the grip of a deadly opioid addiction crisis.

“I hope that the city will let us continue to help these children who are dying every day,” he said. “This is not a fact that we should be ignoring. The city of Costa Mesa should be able to provide a number of beds to provide the services to keep these children alive.”

luke.money@latimes.com

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