By Eric Heinz and Matt Cortina
As it struggles to find a way to regulate sober living homes, like many other Orange County communities, San Clemente now finds itself the setting for a lawsuit that claims efforts to stop a sober living home’s operations violate fair housing and anti-discriminatory rules.
Sober Network Properties, which has several sober living homes in San Clemente, recently filed a counter-complaint in Orange County Superior Court against a lawsuit Talega resident David Hurwitz previously filed against them. In his suit, which is scheduled to receive a ruling on June 6, Hurwitz claimed a sober living home moved into the house next to his, which subsequently “changed the character of our neighborhood.” Eighteen months of living conditions he wouldn’t wish on his “worst enemy” forced Hurwitz to try to remove the facility through the courts.
“We went as far as to bring in a CSI-type investigation company that did chemical testing on our windows that shows nicotine stuck on our glass,” Hurwitz said at a community meeting on May 12. “We are constantly having interruptions in the middle of the night … lots of people drinking Red Bulls, staying up late. It became unlivable next door [to the facility].”
Hurwitz says the facility’s paperwork was subpoenaed and hopes the court rules that the facility is unlawfully operating a commercial business in a residential area. But the countersuit from Sober Network Properties claims Hurwitz’s suit violates the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and “various California statutes.”
Pasquale Neri, an attorney working as a liaison and director of strategic planning with Sober Network Properties, claims San Clemente officials entered the homes on several occasions to conduct “thinly veiled raids” regarding code compliance. They were also unlawfully sent cease and desist letters by the city, Neri said.
“We do not want to bring this lawsuit,” Joe Scolari, the CEO of Sober Network Properties, said in a press release regarding the lawsuit. “Our company is not controlled by detached investors or executives in distant headquarters. My wife and I own and run it, and we live in this county. We have two children who go to school here and a third on the way. The last thing we want is to be involved in litigation with our local government and our neighbors.”
Neri said the support from the city of San Clemente against sober living residences has prompted the organization to take legal action. He added that the sober living home next to Hurwitz’s property “hasn’t had any problems” since they converted it from a men’s home to a women’s home.
Neri said the organization he represents is not in favor of two proposed bills that are working their way through the state house, but they are “more than willing to work with the local government,” to find a more amenable solution.
One of the bills Neri mentioned is co-authored by State Sen. Pat Bates (R-Laguna Niguel), Assemblyman Bill Brough (R-Dana Point) and Assemblyman Matthew Harper (R-Huntington Beach). If passed, that bill would enforce a certification program on sober living homes and require contact information for the home operator and at least one tenant. The other bill, co-authored by Bates and Brough, would allow cities to request that the state not allow new treatment facilities to be built within 300 feet of other treatment facilities. Such a law would prevent the over-concentration of sober living homes that many South Orange County communities are reporting. The city of San Clemente recently pledged its support of the two bills.
“What I can say is that the proposals so far are not something that we agree with, certainly not wholeheartedly,” Neri said.
Bates, Brough and Harper were joined by city officials from throughout South Orange County and about 600 residents at a town hall meeting on sober living facilities in Laguna Hills on May 12. The discussion included a presentation on how existing laws govern sober living homes and the presentation of two case studies that show how litigation may or may not be successful for towns looking to manage sober living homes.
To much applause, Brough made a case for regulation at the meeting.
“We can’t even get in there to find out if these things are working,” Brough said. “I agree that people need help … but these homes are not the right facilities to go to. I’m not a doctor, but it doesn’t make sense to me to put six addicts in a home and [then] they’re free to do what they want to do at night.”
Without commenting on the commercial side of sober living home operation, Neri said Sober Network Properties ensures that life inside their properties is safe and clean.
“We make sure that our properties are well taken care of,” Neri said. “You hear sober living homes without electricity or something like that because those owners don’t give a damn. That never happens with us. (SNP) takes care in making sure the houses are fully operational and everything in working order.
“Being in a residential neighborhood is part of the sober living process,” Neri added. “Is there any room for regulation? I don’t know. We haven’t seen a proposed ordinance that would alleviate the problem that residents are having. These bills just put in red tape.”
San Clemente has a current year-long moratorium on the establishment of sober living homes that ends in July. Whether they seek to extend the moratorium or enact legislation remains to be seen, but what the Orange County Supreme Court decides on the Hurwitz case could indicate action. That, and the cases of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, which were detailed at the town hall, can be used as examples.
Tarquin Preziosi, the city attorney of Costa Mesa, talked about his city’s successful efforts to enforce regulation on sober living homes—something other municipalities haven’t been able to do yet.
Preziosi outlined how Costa Mesa passed laws that put a 650-foot buffer between sober living homes, banned them from residential areas and required contact information for operators. Solid Landings Behavioral Health, which owned 33 homes in Costa Mesa, sued the city. A district court ruled in favor of the city before a U.S. appellate court granted an injunction upon appeal, meaning that the city would not be able to enforce its law.
However, the city and the sober living home operator reached a settlement, and over time, 15 homes were closed, with the other 18 scheduled to shut down over the course of two years. Solid Landings will still be allowed to operate two community centers.
It’s also important to note that such a strategy incurs many costs—Newport Beach was forced to pay more than $5 million in settlement money alone when sober living home operators sued legislation they had enacted that was similar to Costa Mesa’s.
Litigation and policy is one way to address sober living homes, but Assemblyman Harper said at the town hall that cities also need to address the underlying problem associated with sober living homes: substance abuse.
“Places that we never would have thought about it, there are young kids who are getting addicted to opioids,” Harper said. “When heroin does hit, it’s significant.”
Absent from the event was an opportunity for sober living home residents and operators to speak, though a show of hands revealed about four dozen of such people in attendance.