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Sober-living firm suing city is asking for exemption

A Costa Mesa sober-living facility that sued the city last month over its group-home ordinance is finally getting a hearing on its request to house up to 15 clients.

The Planning Commission on Monday will hear Yellowstone Recovery's request for an exemption, known as a "reasonable accommodation," for the men's group home, which has been operating for years at 3132 Boston Way.

The six-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot house has a valid state license for 15 people, but city officials contend that number is in clear conflict with local zoning laws that permit six or fewer sober-living clients in single-family residences.

The conflict arose when the city received reports this year about the number of residents there exceeding city restrictions and investigated.

City staff is recommending that the commission deny the request.

Yellowstone's lawsuit alleges that the city's recently adopted ordinance is discriminatory to a protected class of people. Individuals recovering from alcoholism and addiction are considered disabled and protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and federal fair-housing laws.

Steven Polin, Yellowstone attorney, said the Boston Way site also should not be treated any differently than any home sheltering a large family.

In accordance with city law, the living situation is akin to that of large extended families housed under the same roof, he said.

"What goes on in the house has many of the hallmarks of what goes on in a family," Polin said. "We live in a day and age when there are all different types of families."

Various studies show that recovering drug or alcohol addicts are aided by a supportive environment, Polin said.

The key, he said, is avoiding loneliness and isolation, which can trigger relapses.

"When you have those bad days, and when you have 15 people living in the home, striving to do the same thing you're doing, there's virtually a guarantee that there will be someone there, at any given time, who you can talk to," he said. "Part of the tools of recovering is learning to deal with life on its own terms, without using drugs and alcohol."

City attorneys contend that Yellowstone has not provided proof that having more than the allowed six people "would be therapeutically meaningful." They also contend that a home with 15 men could "fundamentally [alter] the character" of the Mesa North neighborhood.

The new city ordinance requires sober-living homes in single-family neighborhoods like Mesa North to apply for a special permit. The first-come, first-served permitting system also requires that sober-living homes be at least 650 feet apart, a distance that will force clustered houses to cease operations.

The Boston Way home is one of many in Costa Mesa that would be affected by the new system, which, as of last week, was not yet ready for implementation.

Polin and city officials said the timing of Monday's commission hearing, in light of Yellowstone's lawsuit filed Nov. 20, is coincidental.

Yellowstone filed its request for an exemption in June. The request was denied by a city administrator in August, leading the company to file for an appeal. Delays in the appeal process led to the matter getting pushed to Monday.

Jerry Guarracino, a director in the city's Community Improvement Division, noted that even though Yellowstone's state permit allows up to 15 people, it still is not in compliance city zoning law.

This creates an ambiguity that is being addressed, he said.

"The city is working with the state to make sure the state licenses are in compliance with local zoning regulations," Guarracino said.

He added that the city's case is strengthened by the fact that the Boston Way group home has a special license, unlike standard family settings.

"By virtue of having a state license, it goes to show they're not a 'single housekeeping unit' in the traditional sense," he said.

City staff said the Boston Way home has been used as a sober-living facility as far back as 1998. It is owned by Anna Thames, also known as "Dr. Honey" Thames.

If the commission denies Yellowstone's request, the firm could appeal the decision in court.

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