Encinitas council supports sober-living home regulations

The Encinitas City Council on Sept. 9 unanimously backed an ordinance that would regulate sober living homes for recovering addicts. But it remains to be seen whether the new rules will take effect.

Before giving final approval on the ordinance, Encinitas is watching what happens in Costa Mesa, which was sued by a sober-living group called Solid Landings over identical regulations. If Costa Mesa prevails in the legal battle, city staff said Encinitas would be on solid legal footing.

“I’m hopeful for a successful outcome in Costa Mesa,” Councilman Mark Muir said. “And I think this ordinance will not only improve the quality of life for the neighbors, but I think it will improve the quality of life for the [sober-living] facility residents.”

Over the last year, residents have complained those living in the homes are responsible for an inordinate amount of second-hand smoke, trash and bad language in their neighborhoods. During the meeting, those against regulations said the houses provide a safe environment to kick the habit.

Online searches show five sober-living homes in Encinitas, but there are likely more in the city, according to city staff.

Encinitas’ proposed ordinance calls for a major-use permit when more than six people occupy a sober-living house, requires employee background checks and establishes a minimum 650-foot buffer between the homes to prevent clusters of them in one neighborhood.

Rich Schiavi, who lives near a sober-living home on Neptune Avenue, said the ordinance would ensure the homes live up to their mission of helping recovering addicts.

“They need help,” Schiavi said. “These guys need something more than cramming them in a home on Neptune Avenue.”

Robert Crocker is the director of operations for Southern California Recovery Centers, which runs the Neptune Avenue sober-living facility. Crocker said he’s in support of much of the ordinance.

However, Crocker added requiring a major-use permit for more than six people in a house would drive up the cost of sober-living homes for recovering addicts. Instead, he stated any permit triggers should be based not on the number of people, but instead a home’s square footage.

Crocker has previously pushed back against those who claim the homes have little structure, saying those living in the Neptune Avenue home must have jobs, pass regular drug tests and abide by a curfew.

Robert Wilson, who owns a sober-living home in Encinitas, said the houses play a critical role in the recovery process. Wilson cautioned that Newport Beach tried to slap regulations on sober-living homes, was sued for discrimination and lost a lengthy court case.

“Cities have access to legitimate, non-discriminatory ways to address neighborhood nuisances,” Wilson said.

The California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs requires special licenses for houses that provide on-site treatment. Yet sober-living homes are only considered drug- and alcohol-free zones, exempting them from such licenses.

Cities have struggled to regulate sober-living homes, because recovering addicts are considered disabled, a status protecting them under state and federal laws. That’s why cities like Encinitas are waiting to see what happens in Costa Mesa.

A federal judge dismissed Solid Landing’s lawsuit against Costa Mesa, but an appeal was filed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, and it’s expected to be heard sometime next year, according to the city staff report.

Last spring, the council signaled its support for an ordinance mirroring Costa Mesa’s, asking the Planning Commission to weigh in on the matter. Last month, the commission voted in favor of the ordinance.

Mayor Kristin Gaspar said sober-living homes are a valuable resource that she doesn’t want to see go away. But, she added, the ordinance would “manage secondary impacts” that affect neighborhoods.

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