Encinitas restarts permit process for sober living group homes

The Encinitas sign shines above South Coast Highway 101.
The Encinitas sign shines above South Coast Highway 101.

(Charlie Neuman)

Planning Commission recommends City Council approve proposed ordinance


This summer’s resolution of a long-running court battle in Costa Mesa over regulating small “sober living” group homes has allowed Encinitas to start moving forward with its own proposed regulations after a five-year hiatus.

“I think it’s a good step forward for the city to get this in place,” Planning Commission Chairman Bruce Ehlers said Thursday, Sept. 3, just before the commission voted to recommend approval of the proposed ordinance.

It’s scheduled to go before the City Council in October and could be reviewed by the state Coastal Commission in December or January, city principal planner Jennifer Gates said.

Small sober living houses, places where six or fewer residents live under the supervision of a house manager while receiving medical services or counseling elsewhere, fall into a bit of a regulatory gray area, city legal advisers have said. Under state law, cities are not allowed to prohibit such operations in residential neighborhoods because they’re considered “homes,” but whether cities have the ability to regulate how these homes operate has been a matter of debate for some years.

Faced with neighbor complaints about criminal activity, trash and noise, some cities have attempted to craft regulations and been sued over them. Encinitas started the regulatory process in response to lobbying by people who lived near several group homes, but pushed the pause button in the fall of 2015 on the advice of the city attorney, who recommended waiting to see the results of a pending court case regarding the city of Costa Mesa’s restrictions.

In the years since, that court case has slowly worked its way through the legal system. In June, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Costa Mesa’s group home ordinance, an Encinitas staff report noted, adding that because of Costa Mesa’s recent successes in the courts, other cities have begun enacting their own regulations.

The regulations now under consideration in Encinitas would require that:

  • Group homes with six or fewer residents obtain a city permit, while those serving seven or more residents obtain a major conditional use permit.
  • House managers meet certain standards, including that they must have at least a full year of sobriety if they are a recovering drug or alcohol abuser, and that they have not been convicted of a violent felony in the last 10 years.
  • A group home cannot locate within 650 feet of another group home, sober living home, residential care facility or state-licensed alcoholism or drug abuse recovery or treatment facility. This “separation buffer” is to be measured from the property line.
  • A house manager must be present at the home on a 24-hour basis and be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the home;
  • Each tenant can have no more than one vehicle and those vehicles must be parked on the property or along the street within 500 feet of the dwelling unit.
  • Residents of a sober living home must be actively participating in recovery programs, and the home must prohibit the use of alcohol, marijuana or any non-prescription drugs both at the home and off-site by residents.

Before their vote Thursday, Sept. 3, the planning commissioners listened to a dozen emailed public comments read aloud by city employees. All but one opposed the proposed ordinance, with many saying they thought the city was creating regulations that would allow group homes to open in town.

Several of the email writers asked city officials to hold off on making any changes to city regulations until coronavirus-related restrictions on public gatherings are lifted and City Hall can host open-to-the-public meetings, instead of collecting comments via email.

“There is no compelling reason that this must be advanced at this time,” one person wrote.

Planning commissioners and city planning department employees said the opponents appeared to misunderstand the purpose of the proposed ordinance, and didn’t seem to realize that small group homes already exist in Encinitas and are basically unregulated.

“I’ve looked into this and basically it’s the Wild West right now,” Commissioner Kevin Doyle said.

Doyle added that he was particularly supportive of the proposed limits on how close one group home can locate near another, saying he knows first-hand from other towns that having multiple group homes on one street can be problematic.

— Barbara Henry is a freelance writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune