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Costa Mesa places limits on sober-living homes

The Costa Mesa City Council gave final approval Tuesday to an ordinance that will place new limitations on sober-living homes, potentially forcing some of them to close.

Supporters contended that the law would address an over-concentration of the homes in single-family neighborhoods by requiring that they are at least 650 feet from one another.

The ordinance would also require sober-living operators to apply for special city permits within 90 days of the ordinance taking effect.

Operators would have up to two years to comply with new regulations, among them having a live-in manager and providing “good neighbor” policies.

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Permits will be granted on a first-come, first-served basis. With the new 650-foot location restriction, the ordinance is predicted to cause the closure of homes currently clustered together on the same or nearby streets.

“We’re not outlawing group homes,” said Councilman Gary Monahan. “We’re trying to put our arms around it and put some regulation on them.”

Detractors, including Councilwoman Wendy Leece and some sober-living operators, urged the council to hold off on the law and work with affected operators on solutions.

Leece, who was among the unanimous council that approved the first reading of the ordinance Oct. 7, reversed her vote. She was the lone dissenter.

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“There’s really no hurry,” Leece said. “It’s not like we’re racing the clock.”

In July, she suggested creating the ordinance, hoping that Costa Mesa could learn from one adopted by the Orange City Council in 2009.

Others said good sober-living operators shouldn’t suffer because of the bad ones, and that the ordinance opens City Hall to lawsuits because the restrictions would be considered discriminatory.

Per state and federal law, sober-living clients, who are recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, are considered a protected class.

Paul Dumont, an advocate with the Sober Living Network, called Costa Mesa’s ordinance “fatally flawed.”

“It’s going to be so incredibly easy to defeat when it gets into a federal court,” he said.

Grant McNiff, also of the Sober Living Network, said Costa Mesa will need to provide “real data, not pretend data” to defend its new regulations, which he called “blatant and targeted discrimination.”

Monahan said the problems attributed to the homes — including noise, second-hand smoke and a transient population — have been occurring in Costa Mesa for more than a decade.

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He said the city has a “silent majority,” who are upset about the myriad problems.

“I am proud to be part of a council that’s going to bring this forward,” Monahan said.

Mayor Jim Righeimer said the city cannot wait to solve the problems.

“We are starting the clock now,” he said. “We have to start the clock. We can’t continue to talk about it.”

The city attorney’s office plans to create a second ordinance that will regulate sober-living homes in neighborhoods zoned for condominiums, apartments and town homes.

Some residents were critical that the first ordinance did not apply to multifamily neighborhoods, though city attorneys said those areas have different issues and that the first ordinance must be narrowly tailored to be legally defensible.

Recent city staff estimates indicate that Costa Mesa contains about 1,200 beds within nearly 200 sober-living homes, with and without state licenses.


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