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Commentary: Let's help group homes be good neighbors

Among the top concerns when it comes the quality of life in Costa Mesa neighborhoods are the negative impacts created by operators and residents of some group homes. Excessive noise, traffic, large meetings and smoking are among the complaints received regularly by the city from neighbors.

At least 115 group homes operate in Costa Mesa residential neighborhoods. The state has licensed 37 of these to provide treatment for drug and alcohol abuse. (Treatment is defined as conducting group meetings, planning recovery or treatment options, providing detoxification services or administering medication.) By law, the other 78 unlicensed homes aren't allowed to provide treatment.

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And those are just the group homes of which the city is aware. There are more unlicensed homes in Costa Mesa that operate under our radar because they aren't required to register with any government entity.

Cities have had a difficult time dealing with the negative impacts created by some who reside in group homes. Various federal and state fair-housing and anti-discrimination laws provide significant protection to those who operate and live in group homes.

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For example, the federal government considers people with alcohol or drug addiction to be handicapped and therefore protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The California law states that group homes with six or fewer residents must be treated just like a traditional family home.

Our neighboring city, Newport Beach, has spent nearly $4 million in legal fees and lost in court in its attempt to better regulate group homes in the community. The group home industry is very profitable and has been eager to protect its economic interests, no matter the cost.

This means that we, as a city, simply can't say, "We don't want group homes in our city," just as we can't say, "We don't want those people [fill in the blank] in our neighborhood." This would be not only against the law, but unfair to the many group homes that operate as good neighbors and generate few, if any, complaints.

In Costa Mesa, the City Council and city staff have already taken several positive steps to make sure group home operators and residents are good neighbors.

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First, we've created a full-time code enforcement officer position to make sure group homes and their residents follow our municipal laws.

One of the laws that we can enforce today is the six-resident limit for a group home.

We recently cited, for example, a group home that was operating with 15 beds (group homes operating in residential neighborhoods cannot have more than six beds without a conditional use permit).

Please contact Code Enforcement Officer Mike Tucker at (714) 754-5209 if you have reason to believe that a group home has more than six residents or is using a garage as a living space.

The City Council this year passed a revised nuisance ordinance that gives city staff more tools to curb the secondary impacts to our neighborhoods of poorly run group homes, such as excessive smoking and noise and meetings held in garages.

Also, our city's attorneys have been talking with Newport Beach's lawyers to learn from their experiences in an effort to make sure whatever steps Costa Mesa takes will withstand court challenges.

Finally, as mayor, I've formed the Preserve Our Neighborhoods Task Force to work exclusively on this issue. The seven-member panel consists of concerned residents and a respected group home operator.

Together, I'm confident we will come up with innovative options and solutions that balance the rights of group homes with the quality of life we have all come to expect living in our beautiful and peaceful Costa Mesa neighborhoods.

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JIM RIGHEIMER is the mayor of Costa Mesa.

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