By Tina Richards
The Board of Supervisors approved a zoning amendment requested by the Third District's Don Wagner to curtail the “creeping encroachment” of sober living homes in residential neighborhoods.
The amendment, approved June 25, is modeled after one enacted in Costa Mesa. That one provides that a 1,000-ft. buffer exist between sober living/group homes in a given area. The 1,000-ft. separation has been upheld by the court, so other local jurisdictions (including the county) are following that lead.
Wagner's initial request at the June 4 Board of Supervisors meeting followed a North Tustin town hall hosted to hear residents’ concerns about the proliferation of group homes in their neighborhoods. Those concerns are shared by neighborhoods in Villa Park and Orange Park Acres. About 150 residents attended the North Tustin meeting, more than double the number expected.
Home, sweet home
State and federal legislation supports group homes. Individuals recovering from drug or alcohol abuse or mental instability are considered to be disabled and may not be discriminated against. They are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act. The state treats recovery facilities with six beds or less as family homes. The designation stands because courts have been unwilling to define “family.” Realtors, by law, cannot discriminate against a buyer who plans to operate a group home.
As long as the residence has six beds or less, it can operate without a permit; seven beds or more requires a conditional use permit from the jurisdiction. Homes that provide “treatment” are licensed by the state, and periodically inspected.
Licensed homes that are not good neighbors can be reported to the state. Otherwise, there is little the community can do. OC Sheriff Pat Rich advises residents to call his department if there are “strangers walking around,” excessive noise or individuals trespassing onto their property. “A deputy will come out and talk to the house manager,” he told town hall attendees. “Don’t think you are ‘bothering us.’ You’re not.” Neighbors can also call county code enforcement about parking congestion, trash or other nuisances.
The state’s call
“The state has failed to provide us with a level of protection,” Wagner says. “Court decisions support expanded sober living homes, and the state legislature is unwilling to pass adequate protective laws. This has severely constrained local government and the county’s ability to protect residents.”
Some community organizations in Orange County and beyond have been lobbying state legislators to better regulate group/sober living homes – with mixed success.
One North Tustin resident at the town hall meeting reported that he had called State Assemblyman Stephen Choi’s office about the subject, and was told to “go see Don Wagner.”
At least, says Wagner, “with the new amendment, the county will have a few more tools to increase public safety. After its passage, the county will have done everything in its power to protect our communities.”
The amendment now goes to a hearing/vote before the county planning commission.
Group homes test the limits of the law