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Petitioners seek action on rehab homes

A Costa Mesa group is pushing for greater City Hall action to address problems associated with rehabilitation homes in residential areas, though city officials counter that some assertions in its petition are false and not all of the demands are legally enforceable.

Among the calls to action in the document circulated this week by Take Back Our Neighborhoods, or TBON, is an immediate citywide moratorium on building permits for sober-living home conversions. The group asserts that Costa Mesa is being "overrun by unlicensed, unregulated drug rehab-parolee houses that are doing business in our residential neighborhoods."

"Our intent is to get something done, and it starts first here, at the city level," said TBON member Lisa Morlan. "And then we will take it further. That's our goal."

Costa Mesa city officials, however, reject any suggestion that rehabilitation homes are receiving special treatment. The city is bound by a law stipulating that as long as a group home in a single-family neighborhood has six or fewer tenants, it does not need a special operating permit, officials said.

Also, residents of such homes are protected by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act because those in recovery from drug addiction and alcohol dependency are technically considered "disabled." Thus, cities can do little to stop where these people live, officials said.

When it comes to applicants for building permits, provided that everything conforms with regulations, Costa Mesa does not and cannot discriminate, said assistant city CEO Rick Francis. There is no discretion to target sober-living homes, he said.

"Permit requesters do not have to tell the city how they intend to use their property unless it is an obvious departure from prior use," Francis added in a follow-up email. "An example would be someone wanting to add three bedrooms to a four-bedroom house — such a change would raise questions. However, even if they said the renovations were associated with group home usage, at this time we have no basis or direction to deny permits based only on that information."

Francis added in an email that "any direction to declare some kind of moratorium on issuing building permits would have to be a decision made by the City Council. They would obviously consult with the city attorney's office before making such a decision."

TBON is circulating a paper form of the petition and has also created an online version at Change.org, which, as of Friday afternoon, had about 150 signers.

The petition also argues that the rehabilitation homes are absorbing more parolees and that reductions to the police force have left Costa Mesa ill-prepared as more criminals are released under a state plan to reduce prison overcrowding.

Morlan is also working to address the issue from within the city. She is among Mayor Jim Righeimer's seven-member Preserve Our Neighborhoods Task Force, recently formed to address problems surrounding rehabilitation homes, which reportedly include drug use, robberies, burglaries, loitering and wafting smoke.

Morlan said her new group is not necessarily trying to shut down all such homes — some of them are exemplary, she said — but that unpermitted conversions of garages into bedrooms, adjusted floor plans and extra bedrooms in the homes must be addressed.

"It's really a health and safety issue for those who live in the home," she said.

TBON's petition also demands that Costa Mesa draft an amicus curiae — or friend of the court — brief to support Newport Beach's lawsuit against its sober-living homes.

Costa Mesa officials said this week that the city attorney's office is doing just that, in accordance with city policy.

Mayor Jim Righeimer disagreed with the notion that Costa Mesa is doing too little to address concerns related to the homes. He called the petition pure election-year politics, driven by emotion.

"It's unfortunate that people are trying to politicize a very serious issue in the city," he said.

Sensitive legal protections, such as fair-housing laws, are at play, he said. The city cannot single out rehabilitation homes, Righeimer said.

What Costa Mesa can do, he said, is address the bothersome effects, and recently adopted ordinances are doing that, he said.

"The public has to watch what they say and be responsible," he said. "This [petition] is not responsible. They know that if we go into court, you cannot say, 'Just close down group homes.' What you can say is, 'Let's look at the impacts.'

"I think there's a way to solve these impacts."

Morlan said her group sees widespread inaction at City Hall when it comes to problematic group homes.

"How can it not be a political situation?" Morlan said. "If [Righeimer] wants to call it political, great. But what else are we supposed to do?"

She said neither the petition nor TBON, which formed about a year ago, is intended to interfere with Righeimer's council reelection campaign this November.

Morlan said she and others have been trying to bring the matter to the attention of the mayor, council and Planning Commission for more than a year.

"The mayor has met with many people in neighborhood settings about sober-living home situations, but nothing was really done," Morlan said. "So a group of concerned people got together and said, 'We're going to have to join forces here and move forward.'"

TBON organizers said they were spurred to get a petition going after Monday's Planning Commission meeting. Though the commissioners denied a Placentia Avenue homeowner's request to build a two-story, 835-square-foot garage on his property, concerns had been raised about garages being turned into group homes.

Costa Mesa is being called the capital of the "Rehab Riviera," said TBON member Ann Parker. The homes are "like Ms. Pac-Man. They're gobbling up adjoining properties."

She added: "The city has let us down. They are not listening to our concerns."

Planning Commission Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick said he appreciated "the energy and passion from our residents," but encouraged consideration of legal implications before actions are taken.

After all, he said, "We're on the same side."


Rehab home numbers

TBON's research indicates that Costa Mesa has more than 300 rehabilitation homes and that the number is growing.

Francis said city staff are analyzing TBON's numbers and comparing its data to that of City Hall, which has different ways of defining a rehabilitation home.

A few weeks ago, Costa Mesa calculated 129 sober-living properties containing 1,070 beds. Of the 129, 35 have state licenses, 76 are unlicensed sober-living service providers and 18 are administrative facilities, some of which provide rehabilitation services but not housing.

"While we acknowledge that the number of unlicensed group homes is likely greater ... the process of validating new homes takes time because we validate each one physically to ensure we are accurate," Francis said.

TBON's petition also demands that Costa Mesa adopt zoning standards similar to those in Orange.

In 2009, the Orange City Council unanimously passed a series of regulations for rehabilitation homes with six or fewer tenants located in neighborhoods made up of single-family homes. To operate, the homes — which cannot be within 300 feet of one another, unless already so before the council's changes — need a permit from the city's community development director.

Orange's law also prohibits more than three occupants to a bedroom, and if tenants are parolees or probationers, they cannot room together. Garages and driveways must be used for parking.

Francis and Righeimer said Costa Mesa is considering Orange's policy, which, unlike Newport's, hasn't been challenged in court.

But multiple legal experts have asserted that if Orange's law was tested legally, it would be struck down in the courts, Francis said.

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