Sober living home permit plan wins initial support from Encinitas council

Downtown Encinitas.
(Charlie Neuman/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

City’s 2-year-old climate action plan receives an update

A proposal to create a permit system for sober living group homes won initial, unanimous approval from the City Council Wednesday night, Nov. 18, over the strong objections of a half-dozen industry advocates who called it extremely discriminatory.

The proposed ordinance, which is set to go back before the council Dec. 16 for final approval, will establish the city’s first-ever set of regulations for small group home operations in Encinitas, city principal planner Jennifer Gates said. These businesses will be required to obtain a city permit and to have a house manager on-site, among other conditions.

Encinitas embarked on its effort to regulate group homes years ago after neighbors of several sober living facilities — group homes where people stay while participating in drug or alcohol addiction treatment — began repeatedly complaining to city officials about noise and crime issues at the homes. However, the city’s proposed regulations were placed on hold in 2015 to await the outcome of lawsuits involving a similar permit system enacted in Costa Mesa.

This summer, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Costa Mesa’s regulations, and Encinitas city employees recommended that Encinitas restart its regulations proposal.

One Wednesday night, Nov. 18, group home advocates told council members that if they approved the proposal they would be making a big mistake, saying the Costa Mesa ruling was “temporary” and the city’s proposed ordinance would destroy local businesses and eliminate housing for people on the edge of homelessness.

Elana Soltz of the San Diego Independent Living Association said the proposal discriminated against seniors, veterans and people with mental health issues, and showed “an exceptional lack of regard for people with disabilities.”

Robert Wilson, who said he had operated a sober living group home in Encinitas for more than seven years “without incident,” said the proposed regulations will cause costs to “skyrocket” at a time when many people need such services given the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Now is not the time to limit access to these resources,” he said, adding that the city ought to do more to enforce its existing ordinances rather than creating new ones.

Councilman Tony Kranz said he thought it was evident that sober living facilities were a “big business” because of how many industry representatives spoke during the meeting. He said the city had no interest in shutting down these businesses, but needed to respond to residents’ complaints.

“I think this doom and gloom that we’ve been hearing from the speakers — I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” he said.

Mayor Catherine Blakespear said she didn’t think it was too onerous to require a permit and some standards, given that people need a permit simply to set up a garden produce sales booth in front of a home in Encinitas.

“To me, getting a permit to run a group home seems reasonable,” she said.

The new rules 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 past 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.

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.

In response to council questions Wednesday night, Nov. 18, Gates said that the city doesn’t have an estimate on how many group homes are in Encinitas because they haven’t been regulated by the city before now. She said she knows there are at least five because the city has received complaints about five operations.

The proposed fee for obtaining a group home permit will be voted on by the council at its Dec. 16 meeting, Gates said.

In other action Wednesday night, Nov. 18, the council unanimously approved an update of the city’s award-winning Climate Action Plan after hearing from 20 public speakers who praised the old document and the new revisions. Many of them said they particularly supported the city’s new efforts to eliminate the use of methane gas-powered water heaters because it would improve indoor air quality as well as reducing a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

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