Costa Mesa planners approve sober-living regulations

Sober-living homes in Costa Mesa may be facing new sets of regulations under a proposed ordinance moving through City Hall.

Four members of the Planning Commission — Commissioner Robert Dickson was absent — signed off Monday night on a recommendation of the law, which brings it to the City Council for a vote on Oct. 7.

The ordinance would, for the first time, require the homes to obtain special operating permits from the city’s development services director. It would only affect sober-living homes located in neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes.

Operators, including those already in Costa Mesa, would have 90 days to apply for the permit and a year to comply with the conditions. They could apply for a one-year extension for compliance.

Homes without a permit would be subject to closure.

Officials said the law would help address over-concentration of the homes that house those recovering from drug and/or substance abuse.

Commissioners recommended that permitted homes be a minimum of 650 feet from one another — an increase from the staff-recommended 500 feet. They also recommended that homes have an on-site, live-in house manager.

Some homes might be forced to relocate under the 650-foot provision.

The ordinance is attempting to balance the needs of Costa Mesa residents and those in recovery. Under both state and federal law, sober-living residents are considered a protected and disabled class.

“The goal of the proposed ordinance is to provide the disabled with an equal opportunity to live in the residence of their choice, and the need to maintain the single-family residential character of these neighborhoods,” according to city staff.

“It’s not going to solve everything overnight,” Commissioner Tim Sesler said of the ordinance, “but I think it’s a good first step.”

A recent city staff estimate accounts for about 160 licensed and unlicensed sober-living homes or facilities citywide. In some cases, the homes are clustered on the same or nearby streets.

City officials also estimate that Costa Mesa contains nearly 26% of all licensed sober-living facilities in Orange County — a high figure, they contend, when considering Costa Mesa contains roughly 4% of the county population.

For years, residents have expressed concern about effects from the homes, including parking problems, excessive noise and second-hand smoke, and a transient population with few ties to the local community.

“What all this is leading to is the change in character in single-family neighborhoods,” said Deputy City Atty. Elena Gerli.

Conditions of the permits also include providing information about the house’s operations and procedures and having a “good neighbor” policy. Costa Mesa’s law is similar to one in Orange, whose City Council approved various sober-living restrictions in 2009.

Costa Mesa resident Barrie Fisher said she lives next to four sober-living homes on her small block. Like Mayor Jim Righeimer has stated in the past, Fisher too predicted that Costa Mesa’s ordinance would face legal challenges. Nevertheless, she supports the effort.

“Until we do something in Costa Mesa, nothing will ever change with the sober-living homes,” Fisher said.

Critics of the ordinance include members of Take Back Our Neighborhoods (TBON), a grass-roots group that has been critical of City Hall’s response to group homes.

TBON members Ann Parker and Mary Spadoni urged the commission to hold off on the ordinance until after the November election, when the new makeup of the council is decided upon by voters.

“I think the residents need a finely crafted ordinance that’s not going to have us in court,” Spadoni said.

Spadoni added that Costa Mesa should also await the legal fate of Newport Beach’s sober-living home ordinance, which has been declared unconstitutional and could be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Parker contended that the Costa Mesa’s law should also apply to rehab homes in neighborhoods zoned for multifamily units, not just single-family homes.

Gerli said staff are considering a separate ordinance for multifamily zones, officially known as “R2.”

Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick and Commissioner Jeff Mathews questioned TBON’s views on the ordinance, given the group’s insistence that City Hall take action.

“I’m surprised to see members that have advocated that the city do something — [they say,] ‘Hurry up and do it,’ ‘You’re not doing it fast enough’ — [and] now say, ‘Don’t do it now,’” Fitzpatrick said.

“The question is do we want to wait or try something now that’s somewhat reasonable, to get our arms around this problem and do something about it?” Mathews said.

Commissioner Colin McCarthy added that Costa Mesa needs its own regulations and can’t necessarily piggyback off Newport Beach’s.

“We can’t just simply photocopy Newport Beach’s ordinance and enact it,” he said.