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By Eric Heinz
In the next three weeks leading up to our election guide, the San Clemente Times will provide questions answered by candidates regarding issues within the city.
Sober living homes are protected at the state and federal level, but the city of San Clemente has taken its own steps to try to regulate how they’re used and where they can operate. Currently, the city is in litigation with a few sober living and treatment providers regarding misuse of operation.
We asked the candidates how they would regulate sober living homes and if they would take a different approach to the current city model.
The candidates’ answers are in the order in which their name will appear on the November election ballot.
Question: What changes would you make to the way San Clemente regulates sober living homes or boarding homes?
Swartz said there is precedent to addressing sober living homes that San Clemente could look at to further their regulations of such facilities.
“I would have taken on the sober living homes directly, … somewhat similar as to what they did in Costa Mesa, coming up with an ordinance regarding proximity and the way they operate,” Swartz said, adding he wouldn’t have combined regulation of them together with short-term rentals, as San Clemente voted to do.
In Costa Mesa, up to 33 homes were pegged to be shut down following an agreement between the operator and the city. Fewer, larger homes and group counseling areas were allowed to continue.
“They should be licensed as businesses, they should be controlled as businesses and should lose the ability to do so if they violate our rules,” Swartz said.
San Clemente Times asked Swartz how he would want to enforce those laws.
“We need to beef up our (Code Compliance Services). The people in our code enforcement have been really good,” Swartz said.
He said he’d be surprised if there were less than 300 facilities in the city, many of which are unlicensed, which poses a regulation problem.
“You can’t identify them unless there’s a complaint, and the ones that aren’t getting complaints, those aren’t the ones I’m worried about. It’s all the ones we do have a problem with,” Swartz said.
San Clemente Times asked if there’s much more the city could do or is this now up to the federal and state governments to regulate the facilities?
Swartz said the proximity between homes could be amended, and that the city could look at Huntington Beach, where they “created their own city prosecutor who can go after repeat offenders.”
Hamm believes the ordinance the city enacted has been a positive first step to regulating sober living homes, but that designating an area and a facility to meet ongoing needs is imperative.
“We need to create a place for them so they can’t just proliferate uncontrolled, which is what they’ve been doing in San Clemente for the past few years,” Hamm said of sober living homes.
There is a difference between regulating these facilities in residential and commercial areas, Hamm said, and any regulation the city puts on the books needs to reflect that.
“The commercial side is a little bit easier, and I think we regulated that,” he said. “We created a place near the hospital so they can get the treatment they need, and then as far as the residential side goes, I’m open to anything further than what we’ve done with those three ordinances. I think that’s just the beginning.
“If you go talk to the big players, they’ll tell you that San Clemente is their hub,” he added. “So we’re taking an unfair share of what you would call the addiction-recovery business, and it’s showing.”
San Clemente Times asked Hamm if he has had any personal issues with sober living homes in his neighborhood.
“I have one right down the street from me, and the classic things is people are up all times of the night. They’re being noisy, they’re being rambunctious, they’re smoking cigarettes, there are lots of debris around that one particular property,” he said.
San Clemente Times asked if Hamm feels any pressure from the city to do more than it has already done to regulate them.
“One of my priorities is to do more. San Clemente is a pretty special place … so we need to do everything we can to protect it,” he said.
Pamela Joy Glass
Glass believes that sober living homes have no place in San Clemente, and that many take advantage of people suffering with addiction.
“Out the door you go. Out the door you go. Out the door you go. Every single one of them,” Glass said of sober living homes. “When I was young, 20 years old, the therapist said ‘Pamela needs to be out on her own, independent, in her own apartment. That means employment, clocking in and clocking out and paying income taxes.’ So these sober living homes steal from these people at opportunities to be independent, and they just put them into another ‘Mommy and daddy, I’m dependent on you’ dialogue. It’s not healthy, and, like I have experienced through my 63 years of life, I have seen people that, because they’re veterans, the government can’t pick them up and can’t kick them out, so their rent stays the same.”
Glass said there will be ongoing concerns with drug abuse if the proposition to legalize marijuana in the state passes. That initiative, Proposition 64, would still allow cities to ban sales and commercial cultivation, and San Clemente has put pre-emptive regulations on the books.
“It’s kind of like you waste a whole lifetime instead of pushing yourself to the limit,” she said. “I really find sober living distasteful, but if they can’t be pushed out the door with the marijuana beast and getting that initiative off the ballot … they suffer the consequences by even desiring to live that kind of life.
“We have our Pledge of Allegiance to live independently, not to claim ‘Oh, I’m a heroin addict. I’m an alcoholic. I have 12 steps.’ Excuse me, but you can tell how much it annoys me,” Glass said.
Robert “Bob” Baker
Baker believes the ordinance that City Council passed to regulate sober living homes in conjunction with short-term rentals is working.
“We (City Council) spent a lot of time and put a lot of effort into crafting this sober living home ordinance that we passed, and we’re seeing the fruit that it’s bearing,” Baker said. “There are sober living homes leaving town every day because we’re putting pressure on them to operate within the rules and regulations set down. The ones that are leaving town are the ones that refuse to operate that way.”
The city’s ordinance limits boarding homes and sober living facilities to higher-density zones, requires a permit and maintains that they cannot operate within 300 feet of one another. Baker said seeing how the ordinance works on a longer scale will be the true test of its merit.
“We need to have more time to see how much fruit is does bear,” He added. “They are leaving town. We’ve been sued, of course, over that. We think we’re on very solid ground and we’ll see where that takes us, but I would say for the foreseeable future, unless we get something from the federal government, Congressman (Darrell) Issa and his speech (at a sober living home forum Sept. 1), his term was they’re ‘abusing the Americans with Disabilities Act.’ To me, those are very strong words, and that’s a very good statement. I’m very encouraged by the fact he’s taken steps to get this solved, or at the very least get us some relief at the federal level.”
San Clemente Times asked Baker if he had spoken to any of the operators in compliance with the city code. Baker said he did not want to comment on any discussions he’s had at this time.
Bane said there are legal issues with the sober living ordinance the city enacted, and that looking at regulation in successful neighboring cities would’ve been helpful to the process.
“I would have done the ordinance a little bit differently,” Bane said. “I would have adopted some of the ordinances like in Orange or Costa Mesa that have already withstood some legal scrutiny and have been challenged so that we could save some costs in terms of constructing legislation and not dealing with lawsuits.
“But with that said, we’ve already undertaken a process, and we have to continue on with code enforcement,” he added.
Bane said there should be an effort at the federal level to better allow municipalities to regulate sober living homes in residential areas.
“I would be very active at the City Council level, continuing to write letters, continuing to do whatever we can to lobby in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere to lobby, and partnering with others to lobby to get some change to the code,” he said.
Bane said he hopes “some conditions” are imposed to “make sure these folks aren’t just dumped on the street” after being discharged from a sober living home, or after the facility shuts down.
“They should already have to pay upfront for a ticket here and a ticket back so that it’s not incumbent on the town or wherever they’re going to figure out what to do with them once the treatment is over,” he said.
Check out next week’s edition of the San Clemente Times to see how candidates responded to questions regarding the homeless population in San Clemente.