Newport law restricting group homes may be challenged, court rules


SAN FRANCISCO — A Newport Beach ordinance that restricts group homes for recovering addicts may have been motivated by illegal discrimination and may be challenged at trial, a federal appeals court ruled unanimously Friday.

The decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals revived lawsuits against the city over a 2008 zoning ordinance that drove most group homes out of the city and forced others to limit services.

The law was seen as a model for other California communities grappling with complaints about group homes in residential neighborhoods.


“Obviously this is a huge victory for sober-living homes and group homes,” said Mary Helen Beatificato, chief executive of Morningside Recovery in Newport Beach. “This ordinance is going down, no doubt about it.”

Morningside agreed to move its 36 sober-living clients out of the city after an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled the operator violated Newport Beach law.

Newport Beach passed the ordinance after residents complained that dozens of group homes had created parking, traffic, noise and secondhand smoke problems in residential neighborhoods. Most of the homes were in the Balboa Peninsula and West Newport.

Bob Rush, a West Newport resident who has been fighting to limit group homes since 2006, called the allegation of discrimination “laughable.”

He said he once counted 15 group homes on his eight-block street.

“I saw one day there was a group of guys standing in front of a house to be picked up by a bus, and two guys were wearing L.A. jail orange jumpsuits,” Rush said.

Operators of the homes challenged the ordinance in district court and lost. Friday’s decision made it possible for homes that have closed or lost business to collect substantial financial compensation.

Elizabeth Brancart, an attorney for three group homes, said they hope the law will be overturned. She said other cities eager to clamp down on group homes have been monitoring the litigation.

“This will give them pause,” Brancart said. “Even if the laws are neutral on their face, if they are clearly targeted at particular groups for discriminatory purposes, the neutrality of the language of their laws won’t save them.”

Newport Beach City Atty. Aaron Harp said the ruling would force the city to go to trial unless the City Council decides to appeal. Harp said the ordinance was adopted in a “fair process” after multiple public hearings.

“In Newport, we treat people with disabilities better than we treat any other group,” Harp said. “We don’t allow boardinghouses, sororities or fraternities in residential zones, and here we made an exception.”

But the court panel cited pages and pages of evidence that suggested the law was intended to make group homes for recovering addicts unwelcome.

A federal trial judge mistakenly disregarded evidence that the city’s “sole objective in enacting and enforcing its ordinance was to discriminate against persons deemed to be disabled under state and federal housing discrimination laws,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a Carter appointee, wrote for the three-judge panel.

Although the law affected boardinghouses, sororities and other such dwellings, evidence suggested it was aimed at group homes, the court said.

“It appears either to be the case that very few ‘group residential’ facilities that were not group homes existed when the ordinance was enacted, or if such facilities existed, the city did not enforce the ordinance against them,” wrote Reinhardt, joined by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, a Reagan appointee, and Judge Sidney R. Thomas, appointed by former President Clinton.

Newport Beach had 73 group homes in April 2007. Now there are 27, providing 329 beds.

Some are licensed to treat recovering alcoholics and drug addicts. Others simply provide a temporary place for recovering addicts to live after treatment. All residents are required to maintain sobriety.

The 9th Circuit said the city “created a task force to locate group homes, undertake surveillance of them, and enforce the zoning code strictly against them.”

Dolan reported from San Francisco, Dobruck from Newport Beach.