Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Planning Commission Tweaks Sober Living Ordinance, And More

The Costa Mesa Planning Commission met Monday night, did some agenda tinkering and the meeting still ran past 9:30.

Commissioner Carla Navarro Woods was absent from the meeting last night.  All the other commissioners were in attendance and Chairman Stephan Andranian had a real test of his leadership skills.
In a curious twist, former Assistant Director of Development Services, Claire Flynn, was honored in absentia.  Apparently nobody has heard from her for some time, but Chairman Andranian still wanted to acknowledge her more than fifteen years of dedicated service to our city.  She left the City last July, which I wrote about HERE.  Andranian read the brief acknowledgement.  Usually you have the celebrant present for these kind of things.  It was very odd, indeed.
During Public Comments eleven members of the public rose to address the commission and, despite Andranian's initial and subsequent cautions that they should use this time to address issues NOT on the agenda last night, eight of them spoke on Sober Living Homes.  You could tell from the response by the remaining members of the audience that Sober Living issues were on many minds of the five dozen people auditorium.  Mary Spadoni spoke about the Los Angeles Small Lot Ordinance, and how that city appears to be poised to abandon it after a decade of trying to make it work. Cindy Brenneman rose, again, to express her displeasure with the appointment process that resulted in Woods being on the commission.
In another curious twist, none of the four commissioners had any comments during their segment.
Andranian then announced that he, as Chairman, was using his prerogative to move Public Hearing #3, the changes to the Sober Living Ordinances, from last to first on the agenda.  This resulted in cheers from those waiting to address that issue officially and some cat-calls (yeah, pun intended) from folks in the room to speak to Public Hearing #2, the Conditional Use Permit for a doggie day care facility.
Following the Consent Calendar - nothing was pulled - the commission got right to Public Hearing #3, the aforementioned code amendments dealing with the Sober Living Ordinances.  Interim Assistant Development Services Director, Consultant Sherry Vander Dussen and Deputy City Attorney Tarquin Preziosi led the presentation, which lasted around fifteen minutes.  Public Comments, on the other hand, took 45 minutes and saw fifteen (15) people rise to address this issue.

The most common threads in those comments seemed to be safety,  fear of the degradation of the neighborhoods and concern about what appeared to be lack of enforcement of the ordinances.  Several speakers expressed concern that one of the changes in the ordinances being recommended seemed to place much too much power in the hands of the Economic and Development Services Director, who would have authority to issue permits without any kind of public hearing.  By the way, currently we DO NOT have a Director of Economic and Development Services - Consultant Jay Trevino is currently filling that slot on a temporary basis.
Barrie Fisher used her three minutes to express her opposition to the proposed changes, citing her concern about decisions being made "behind closed doors", and that "streamlining" was not  a good enough reason for the changes being recommended.  She observed that the City is wasting time micromanaging the issues, and that permitting the Director to arbitrarily tinker with the current 650 foot separation radius between sober living homes is a "slippery slope".  She observed that these changes allow the elected leaders to hide from their responsibilities.  Her presentation captured the essence of what many subsequent speakers said.  When she finished the room erupted in applause - something that caught Andranian off guard and he scolded the audience and said he was not going to tolerate it.  A note - for the first time in months there was no Sergeant-at-Arms present.

This issue caused many new faces to appear before the commission and most of those who spoke echoed Fisher's comments.  One speaker referred to the sober living homes as "private jails" in our neighborhoods.  Others observed that they were businesses, operating in their residential neighborhoods without a license.  Others spoke about the fear for their families, since they understood that probationers and parolees may be part of the mix.
Others, like Tara McCoy, shared personal anecdotes about her tires being slashed - she presumed by someone angry that she intended to speak out.  She has a sober living home near her home and said it's like having a new bad neighbor every month.

Another speaker observed, correctly, that the Conditional Use Permit, once issued, runs with the land, which meant that once a sober living home is permitted in a residential neighborhood and turns out to be a bad neighbor and departs, others could follow.  She observed that this is just not fair to the neighbors.  She also observed that most of these facilities are under parked and make a tremendous impact on the neighborhood from a traffic standpoint.

A phrase that continued to be heard was "enough is enough" - spoken with great passion every time.
Sally Hanson, a 56-year resident and former Newport Mesa Unified School District teacher - her husband also worked for the NMUSD - expressed concern about the potential loss of the 650 foot radius restriction.  She also was concerned that these businesses operate in residential zones with a license.
A local businessman expressed concern about the loss of transparency if the permitting process is done behind closed doors with no opportunity for public participation/observation.
Cindy Black - a 36-year resident - wondered who initiated this request for change?  She also expressed concern about the cost to individuals who may wish to appeal a permit.  Earlier, in response to a question by a commissioner, we learned that an appeal of the Director's permit would cost $690.00 and the appeal of a Planning Commission decision costs $1220.00, which has proven to NOT be refundable if their appeal is successful.
The final speaker - a person who may be the most knowledgeable individual in the city as far as locations of sober living homes and who has fought against the proliferation of them for four years and actually won one of those costly appeals, said we should be making our ordinance stronger, not weaker.  She exhorted the city to draw a line in the sand and fight this invasion - to stand firm.  The public comments ended at 7:30.
Andranian reminded the audience that this hearing was an advisory step - the City Council will have the final say in a future meeting.  He observed that there are some good elements in the proposed changes and reminded everyone that those being treated in sober living homes are considered "disabled" by federal law - that they do, indeed, need help to get clean and re-assimilate into society.  He described the 650 radius as a "guide", even though the current code seems clear that the 650 radius is an absolute, not a guide.  He also expressed his concern for any amendments that would weaken the ordinances.  He also described what he called the "biggest problem" with these proposals - that any reduction in public participation is a negative, not a positive, change.  He also observed that we will see the "inevitable lawsuits whether we adopt these changes or not".
Vice Chair Byron de Arakal asked the staff, "As we are currently staffed, do we not have the ability to handle the applications?" Vander Dussen replied that each one still must have findings determined, and that it's not a matter of staff workload.  de Arakal then wondered if the applicants are getting due process due to the delay in processing the applications.  The response, as I understood it, from Preziosi, was that due process requirements are being met.  de Arakal then referred to the second reading of the Multi-family ordinance - the second one the City passed, and wondered if the R-1 ordinance is "legally defensible".  Preziosi's reply was, "Yes, and I still believe it is." He went on to describe different spacing used by Newport Beach and the State.  de Arakal asked if "Is the lack of ability to enforce regulations an undue burden as defined by the law?"  Preziosi replyed, "Maybe".
de Arakal then wondered how we track calls for service to sober living homes.  Vander Dussen replied that the Police has their logs, Code Enforcement logs their calls and observed that we have a pretty good reading on activities.  de Arakal then asked if we have any pending lawsuits on Sober Living?  The reply was "Yes, the Yellowstone lawsuit." de Arakal asked about Reasonable Accommodation, wondering if the fact that the City as a whole has 40% of Orange County's sober living homes demonstrates "reasonable accommodation".  The reply was something to the effect that the Federal government would probably not think so.

The Vice Chair continued, describing briefly a personal family struggle with addiction, indicating he understood the need for treatment for those addicted.  He was concerned that if we permit tinkering with the 650 foot radius then "the walls may come creeping in."  He also expressed concern that under the proposed changes the appeals process as described adds a third step to the process, which will necessarily serve to delay it.  He said "This is going in the wrong direction." and is lengthening the process rather than streamlining it.  He observed that the ordinance is not perfect, but pretty good.  He also observed about the community sentiment - as represented by the speakers and correspondence received on this subject.  He said there "needs to be a balance."  He observed the need that the "transportation" element of the changes - the requirements to hold the sober living home operator responsible to arrange for completed, or failed, clients to be returned to their homes and for the required contacts with government agencies - like the City's Network for Homeless Solutions - when a person leaves a program, so assistance can be provided to ensure that person does not just become another homeless person on our streets.  And, he expressed concern about more than one parolee in a sober living home.  He moved the motion and Commissioner Jeffrey Harlan seconded it.

Ah, but we were not yet done.  Commissioner Isabell Kerins had a couple issues to discuss.  She thanked the staff for all their hard work over the years on this issue.  She also thanked Fisher for her presentation.  She expressed concern that the 650 foot radius - which she inaccurately described as "square foot" - be specifically applied to area involving schools, tot lots and elder homes.  She expressed concern about the transfer of the CUP to another.  She was also concerned about the issuing of permits without transparency.  Preziosi affirmed that the proposed Director's hearing was not a public hearing.

The Vice Chair then attempted to re-state his motion considering Kerin's concerns and tried to define each of the segments of the Code to which the changes applied - I got lost as they plowed through the segments of the code, snipping here and adding there.  Basically, as I understood it, he wanted to retain the segments involving Transportation and Notifications and delete the change in the hearing process.  He also wanted to limit to no more than one parolee per sober living home.  He also wanted to add an element that when a client stays longer than 30 days the operator is then on the hook for Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) for that stay, since it has become a "long term stay" as defined by our code.

Before the vote was taken Harlan addressed the room.  He observed that he was grateful that the discussion had remained civil - a pleasant change.  He was disappointed that they had not heard from the Sober Living Community, which he presumed may have been tactical, but it was clearly an element of the discussion he found lacking.  He said he heard from the public comments and correspondence three things - fear, anger and distrust.  He wondered how we deal with those to find collaborative solutions.  He wished for a plan of compassionate collaboration.

The vote was taken at 8:35 p.m. - a 4-0 vote to pass it on the the City Council.  We took a much-needed break.

When the commission resumed the meeting they heard Public Hearing #1, the request for a new Conditional Use Permit for the Saddleback Church for their facilities at 1901 Newport Boulevard.  When originally issued the current CUP had a sunset clause, which has now expired.  The discussion was brief - the pastor spoke very briefly - and was passed on a 4-0 vote with de Arakal asking for another sunset clause in two years, since the pastor indicated this was still being considered a temporary operation.

At 9:00 the commission began hearing Public Hearing #2, the request by applicant Mark Seltzer for a CUP for Puppy Playhouse - a dog care facility at 704 W. 16th Street.  The crowd supporting this request had thinned significantly by this time, but five people spoke on the issue - only one expressed concern.  Chip Butera is a contiguous property owner and was concerned about the number of dogs - up to 60 at one time - and the noise that he felt was sure to happen.  He said this plan seems to be not very-well thought out.  He worried about the traffic of dog owners coming in and out, especially during peak traffic times.  He worried about the impact on the hundreds of new homes being build at the corner of Pomona and W. 17th Street.  The remaining speakers spoke in glowing terms about the operation and the quality of care their pets had received by the applicants, Mark and Gina Seltzer.  The raved about the care their dogs received.  One woman told us her dog actually "Slept with Mark and Gina".  When Seltzer described the facility he referred to large beds - I believe he mentioned King and Queen beds - where the dogs slept.  I found myself thinking of the irony of the care these pooches would be getting when outside many of the Costa Mesa homeless folks would be looking for a cardboard box to use to protect themselves from the cold ground.  When the vote was taken a condition was added for the operator to maintain a 1/15 staff to dog ratio.  Kerins wanted to require at least two staffers on premises 24/7.  That was rejected by the remaining commissioners.  The issue passed, 3-1, with Kerins voting NO.

There were no staff reports from Public Services nor Development Services, except that Trevino reminded the commissioners of the joint meeting tonight.  I couldn't hear all of his comments because those well-meaning, but inconsiderate, dog folks were busy yapping as they left the auditorium. (Yes, another pun intended).  I did hear him say that the alcohol license for the 99 Cent Store would be on a future agenda.  I found myself wondering if the stabbing at that site yesterday had anything to do with it. 

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Blogger Gitane said...

Geoff: You are partially correct about the 650 foot "limit". But as I understand it and as was confirmed by staff, it can be adjusted and/or waived after a hearing. I believe it's akin to requesting a variance.

3/29/2017 09:09:00 AM  
Blogger The Pot Stirrer said...

That was one of the elements that caused the commmissioners so much heartburn Monday night. As I interpreted the proceedings, that "flexibility" was NOT included in their motion because it bestowed too much power on one person - the Director of Economic and Development Services, a position presently held by a contractor.

3/29/2017 10:12:00 AM  
Blogger Gitane said...

"The Pot Stirrer"

You are absolutely correct. I believe that there needs to be an open and public hearing on these applications, which is why I opposed the suggested changes as proposed. There were good elements in the staff's proposal, which I believe were incorporated into the resolution which was passed by the Planning Commission as recommended changes to the City Council.

3/29/2017 12:12:00 PM  

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