NEWPORT BEACH — As far as demonstrations here go, this qualified as mass protest: At least 70 Lido Isle residents, most of them with grey hair, crowded the City Council Chambers on Tuesday night.
They were there to lay into city officials over a drug and alcohol rehabilitation operator who had opened a group home in their neighborhood, and how they thought the city was indifferent to their outrage.
That same night, the city had announced a major breakthrough in lawsuits against group home operators, and a few weeks ago, the city had signed a settlement with Morningside Recovery. It appeared that peace was on the horizon, at least between the city and the operators, and that Newport could rely on a set of rules to regulate the homes.
But the neighbors were another story. Adding to consistent complaints by residents in West Newport and the Balboa Peninsula about the nuisances these homes present, the Lido neighbors raised the intensity.
"This thing is rising up to a level of civil disobedience," said Edward Cook, who recently bought a lot three doors down from 533 Via Lido Soud, Morningside's new location.
Most of the arguments against the home at Tuesday's meeting concerned having a business next to residents, in a tight community of 850 homes.
"The lights are on all night," said Jack Thomson, who lives next door. "It is like a commercial building."
Neighbors also complained about excessive outdoor smoking and questioned the validity of the operator's residential lease. At least one said she feared violent recovering addicts.
Michael Brant-Zawadzki, a doctor at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian who lives on the island, said that he thought Morningside was compromising the privacy of recovering patients because neighbors could hear their conversations.
"Their values and their rights may be violated as we speak," he said.
But Morningside Chief Executive Candace Bruce said her clients were not concerned about their conversations being overheard, and that they just wanted to live in peace.
"They're interested in being good neighbors," Bruce said, adding that her organization is considering making the home a non-smoking facility.
Meanwhile, she and her clients have to deal with enraged neighbors. Bruce claimed that neighbors have left alcohol near the home to tempt the residents, and that people were shooting photos and video of the residents.
Her company operates another rehab facility on Lido, a triplex at the entrance of the island. That facility has been a rehab home for about 10 years, but hasn't generated as much controversy as this one, which is in a single-family home close to neighbors.
City officials explained the laws governing group homes, which allow for residential care facilities in single-family neighborhoods. This style of residential recovery, they said, has strict protections under state and federal law.
City Atty. David Hunt said that Morningside was within its rights under its settlement agreement to open a home there, and that the city had no recourse to shut it down.
"We've looked very hard," he said, "We unfortunately have very limited legal action."
Lido residents refused to accept this, and said the city needed to do more. They said that Newport was lax in responding to complaints about smoking and other nuisances coming from the homes.
"There is a general disbelief in our enforcement," Councilwoman Nancy Gardner told City Manager Dave Kiff and Hunt, who have been responsible for remedying code violations.
"It is a resource issue," Hunt replied. "I wish we could respond more quickly."
Neighbors' complaints started last week when more than 100 of them attended a community outreach meeting hosted by Morningside.
Originally scheduled at the bayfront home, the meeting was moved to a nearby clubhouse when too many residents showed up. There, Kiff tried to explain the city's position on group homes and how his hands were tied in this case.
The city officials received so many negative comments about that meeting that Kiff apologized Tuesday night for leaving the impression that he had "given up" on helping neighbors maintain their peaceful community. He said he was "clearly a bit jaded" when it came to the controversies surrounding rehab homes.
For the past four years Newport has been battling rehab home operators. Much of that resistance was born of West Newport residents' complaints. The city passed one of the most restrictive municipal ordinances in the state, officials have said, and they have spent nearly $2 million defending it in court.
Their most recent settlement with Morningside limits where its homes can be and how many beds it can operate in Newport. One provision stipulates that homes have to be at least one block from each other, and another says that it can have a maximum of 30 beds in the area around the peninsula, including Lido.
Kiff said that even though the agreement doesn't take effect until December, the new home passed both of those tests and standing restrictions. The other Morningside facility on Lido is about half a mile away, and with six additional beds at 533 Via Lido Sound, it would meet the cap.
Morninside's move, and the neighbors' fury, seemed to have caught city leaders off guard.
"Frankly the timing of it surprised us all," Hunt said.
Councilman Mike Henn said that the city had been working hard to quell the controversies surrounding group homes and that he thought everything was going well with Morningside. Then, the company opened a new facility right after signing the agreement and the city blundered in dealing with neighbors.
"It's very clear to me that there have been a series of judgmental lapses and errors," Henn said.