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Orange County is tightening up its rules for sober living homes in unincorporated areas like North Tustin.

The new county law, which got its first of two approvals Tuesday, will require operators to apply for permits from the county, be at least 650 feet from other drug and alcohol recovery facilities and have no more than six residents.

At least one manager will have to be on site 24/7 to handle complaints, and the home operators will have to tell county officials the owners and managers’ names, addresses, phone numbers, and driver’s license numbers.

“[It] protects the neighbors in our communities who are out there concerned about the changing nature of the neighborhoods into which they bought, into which they’re raising families and trying to live,” said Supervisor Don Wagner, who proposed the ordinance after hearing concerns from North Tustin residents at a town hall meeting.

The new law balances that with trying to help people recovering from addiction get back on their feet, he said.

“There are men and women out in our communities who are trying to put their lives back together again, who are doing what we [ask] them to do, in terms of staying sober, staying out of trouble, staying on the right side of the law and learning to live again in an environment that respects rules, respects neighbors, respects others’ rights as well,” Wagner said.

“The men and women that are trying to do that deserve our support. The homes in which they are living, trying to do that, deserve our support. And what this ordinance does is provide that support.”

Sober living homes have proliferated in several Orange County neighborhoods over the last few years, particularly in coastal cities like Costa Mesa, Huntington Beach and Newport Beach. Officials and residents have raised concerns that certain operators engage in fraud, take advantage of people with addictions, and cause problems for neighbors with seeming impunity.

Hundreds of drug and alcohol rehab homes in the county are unlicensed, officials have said.

The new rules for unincorporated areas focuses on sober living homes, which are not licensed by the state and don’t provide treatment at the homes. The new law received its first approval Tuesday, and must return for a second and final approval before it becomes law.

The proposal was supported by Costa Mesa officials and residents who spoke at the supervisors’ meeting Tuesday. They asked supervisors to go further and have the ordinance match Costa Mesa’s by:

  • Punishing operators that recruit clients from out of state, including fines and potentially revoking their permit.
  • Regulating group homes that have seven or more people.
  • Requiring transportation be offered for evicted residents to go to the address on their driver license or the permanent address from their application or referral to the group home.
  • Mandating that before a resident is evicted, operators must notify their emergency contact as well as reach out to the city’s homeless services network and the county’s hotline for alcohol and drug treatment services.
  • Increasing the separation between rehab homes from 650 feet to 1,000 feet (a request by Advocates for Responsible Treatment).

At Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors’ meeting, the measure drew support – and suggestions – from community leaders.

“This is a very important ordinance, and we appreciate greatly that you are considering it,” Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley told county supervisors.

“There are just a couple of things that we hope that you will consider adding to the ordinance, so that it is consistent with our Costa Mesa ordinance that has been [upheld] by the federal courts, and so that it provides the greatest protection for the residents in the sober living homes as well as the communities surrounding [them].”

“We feel strongly that our ordinances are legal and proper and necessary,” said Kimberly Barlow, Costa Mesa’s city attorney.

Wagner and the other supervisors declined, for now, to incorporate the changes, saying they need to first be analyzed by the county’s attorneys.

They didn’t set a timeline for that review, but suggested the changes could come up for a decision this fall as the county updates its zoning laws, which officials call the “orange to green” process.

“Do the analysis that needs to be done,” Wagner said, adding “there probably is merit” to the suggestions. “Do the analysis, and then…we’ll evaluate them when they come back to us.”

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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