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Officials at Costa Mesa meeting urge more regulation of sober-living homes

The effects of sober-living homes on Orange County communities took center stage in Costa Mesa on Monday evening, with a panel of area politicians giving their opinions and lawyers explaining the complicated legal framework surrounding the issue.

More than 150 people attended the town hall meeting at the Neighborhood Community Center. It was the second forum on the topic this year co-sponsored by the Assn. of California Cities-Orange County and the Orange County Assn. of Realtors. Another held in May in Laguna Hills attracted more than 600 people.

Sober-living homes, which house recovering drug and/or alcohol addicts and typically offer them various medical and non-medical services, have become prolific in Orange County in the past decade.

Costa Mesa is reputed to be an epicenter of the addiction treatment industry. Some City Hall estimates say Costa Mesa has at least 150 sober-living homes and related facilities, though local activists have argued that the figure is considerably higher.

Officials at Monday's meeting noted Costa Mesa's recent laws regulating the homes. Those efforts have been challenged in court.

U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Costa Mesa) criticized the Americans with Disabilities Act definition of recovering addicts as disabled and therefore a protected class of people. Experts say that makes enforcement efforts against the sober-living industry problematic.

"This is not about bad operators," Rohrabacher said. "This is about drug addicts and drunks being put right in our residential neighborhoods. ... What we have here is a basically bad idea that has led to bad policy that has led to a bad outcome. Surprise, surprise."

He also criticized the notion of addiction as a sickness and argued that treating it as such takes away "the idea of personal responsibility and [makes] the situation worse."

Rohrabacher said he supports a bill by U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, HR 6070, introduced in September. The San Diego County Republican's proposed law aims to give state and local governments more regulatory controls over sober-living homes through zoning and licensing measures.

State Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach) noted three recent failed attempts in Sacramento to regulate sober-living homes. The measures didn't gather enough support from the Legislature's Democratic majority, he said.

Harper called for more government regulation of the sober-living industry and for local organizations to network throughout the state to push for legislative reform.

"If there is a citizen movement to be able to pass this legislation, then it can be done," he said.

Heather Stratman, chief executive of the Assn. of California Cities-Orange County, said her organization has an idea for a bill that would allow cities to jointly fund a state investigator based in Southern California, not Sacramento. The investigator, under the Department of Health Care Services, could more quickly respond to licensing issues for area sober-living homes, Stratman said.

She said 40% of sober-living homes in California are in Orange County.

"We have our work cut out for us," she said.

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