Costa Mesa restricts sober-living homes

The Costa Mesa City Council on Tuesday tentatively agreed to place new restrictions on sober-living homes, a source of deep frustration on the Eastside and in other neighborhoods.

Many residents frustrated with the homes’ negative effects — overcrowding, smoking, parking congestion and noise among them — praised the new law. Some operators called it overly restrictive.

City staff said one goal of the ordinance, which will go for final adoption Oct. 21, is to prevent a proliferation of the homes, which house people recovering from alcohol or drug addiction.

The law would require operators to apply for a special license from City Hall within 90 days of the ordinance taking effect. They would have a year to comply with the various conditions, including adhering to “good neighbor” policies and providing adequate parking and a live-in manager.

Staff said the ordinance, which the Planning Commission recommended last month, takes note of the various state and federal laws that protect sober-living residents, who are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and federal fair-housing laws barring discrimination.

For years, residents have complained about the homes’ effects on the character of their neighborhoods, saying the large numbers of transient adults who occupy the homes have few to no city ties. Neighboring Newport Beach spent years locked in a legal battle with operators.

Councilwoman Wendy Leece, whose suggestion in July helped spur the ordinance’s creation, said the law could help curb some of those negative effects.

“It’s just been kind of the wild, wild West in Costa Mesa,” she said. “This ordinance is a start.”

Resident Barrie Fisher called sober-living homes the “bullies of Costa Mesa.”

“We don’t have a neighborhood anymore,” she said. “We have the equivalent of a long-term stay motel.”

Patricia Bintliff, of the Orange County Sober Living Coalition, said her organization checks the homes’ conditions and makes sure they’re in compliance with various standards.

She was critical of the city’s legal bills addressing the matter.

“We have a quality-assurance program,” Bintliff said. “If you would chose to work with us, we can help you to save a great deal of money ... these people need affordable housing.”

According to city staff, Costa Mesa has 42 state-licensed, sober-living facilities with a total of 410 beds. Officials estimate that the city contains 26% of all such licensed facilities in Orange County — a high figure, they contend, when considering the city only has about 4% of the county population.

“That’s quite a significant percentage,” Deputy City Attorney Elena Gerli said.

When factoring in unlicensed facilities, Costa Mesa has nearly 200 sober-living homes, according to staff estimates. In all, the homes contain approximately 1,200 beds.

The new law would only affect group homes located in “R1" neighborhoods zoned for single-family homes. Officials believe about 60 sober-living homes, both licensed and unlicensed, are in R1 neighborhoods, with many clustered together on the same or nearby streets.

City attorneys said they plan to create a separate ordinance for “R2" neighborhoods, or those zoned for multifamily units.

The ordinance also would require the homes to be at least 650 feet from one another. This condition is likely to affect sober-living facilities that are closer than that now, and some may have to close, staff said.

Licenses are going to be granted on a first-come, first-served basis, Gerli said. Good operators aren’t likely to have troubles, she said.

“This is not a complicated process,” she said. “This is not a complicated application. If they’re in compliance, they’ll get it in quickly.”