Scottsdale dips into sober home regulations through new spacing requirements

Pills like this hydrocodone tablet are often the first introduction everyday Americans get to the world of opioids that, in recent years, has translated into opioid addiction meanwhile addicts looking to get clean, experts say, need help transitioning to a sober lifestyle through living in a sober-living facility. (File photo)

As the opioid epidemic tightens its grip on the nation’s beleaguered, an unintended consequence of the road to recovery is hitting a little too close to home for some.

Over the last decade the undertones of American drug addiction — the friend who pops the occasional pill or the buddy who has one too many at the bar — have matured into a phenomena that doesn’t discriminate against any socioeconomic background.

What was once believed to be the strife of the inner-city is now a fact of life for both the down-trodden and the affluent. Meanwhile, the effort to gain sobriety has become, at times, a segmented and transitional enterprise.

The burgeoning substance abuse recovery market has created a niche business model: the sober-living facility.

A sober-living facility, or sober home, as classified by both state and federal guidelines, seeks to help drug and alcohol addicts achieve sobriety and reintegrate into society at large.

But some in Scottsdale say new zoning codes adopted don’t go far enough — while others say new rules adopted in various municipalities could be a violation of Fair Housing laws.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act was created to eliminate discrimination, allowing housing choices for all Americans despite, among other things, race, color, religious preference or gender. The civil rights-era act established the Office of Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funnels grant dollars for outreach efforts to cities across the nation.

The law’s 1988 amendments seek to ensure all Americans — including recovering addicts of a controlled substance — are treated fairly when seeking a place to call home.

Municipal leaders across Arizona say regulation of sober-living facilities is a malaise of legality, but local jurisdictions are entitled — through both state and federal law — to regulate the operations within a sober-living facility.

Fueling regulation pursuits here in Arizona was the adoption of HB 2107, which provides a legal framework to provide checks and balances on how a sober-living facility is allowed to operate, and who lives inside those homes.

With the city of Prescott leading the way, the municipalities of Phoenix, Gilbert, Paradise Valley and now Scottsdale have adopted certain provisions typically within their respective zoning codes to limit and mitigate sober home activities within local neighborhoods.

Scottsdale resident Angela Ashley in 2014 displaying a citizen petition meant to encourage Scottsdale City Council to develop sober-living facility regulations. (File photo)

‘The whole amendment is a farce’

Scottsdale City Council has approved amendments to the city’s existing residential zoning code now requiring sober-living facilities to be at least 1,200 feet away from each other.

“We changed the separation requirement,” said Scottsdale Senior Planner Greg Bloemberg in a Dec. 13 phone interview.

“Currently, they are required to be separated by a 500-foot radius in any direction or 750 feet on the same street. We just added that 1,200-foot separation up from 500 and 750.”

Scottsdale City Council at a Dec. 5 meeting unanimously approved the zoning code amendment.

“We didn’t just throw a dart at a wall, we looked at what other cities had done,” Mr. Bloemberg said. “The legal department has been looking at this for several months. They feel it is defensible and we feel that it is defensible.”

The new separation requirements are expected to take effect Jan. 5, 2018.

Back in 2014 Scottsdale resident Angela Ashley gathered about 300 resident signatures to encourage Scottsdale City Council to develop regulations for how a sober-living facility can operate within city limits.

Both Ms. Ashley and fellow Scottsdale resident Judy Pollick contend the zoning separation requirement does not go far enough.

“First of all, the whole amendment is a farce,” Ms. Pollick said in a Dec. 14 phone interview.

“It does not address sober-living homes, it only brushes it under the rug. All they have done by doing this amendment is made it worse for assisted-living homes. The state won’t license them. Nobody will have the right to go in and do inspecting. They still have not given any guidelines or any security guidelines — that is what we are asking for.”

Through enacting its zoning code amendment on Dec. 5, Scottsdale City Council effectively put all care homes — sober-living facilities, adult care homes and assisted-living facilities — into one category, putting new spacing requirements for each kind of residential care home.

“There are 109 licensed — and I want to stress licensed — care homes mapped in Scottsdale,” said Mr. Bloemberg during the Dec. 5 public hearing.

“There may be other homes out there that are not licensed and that are not on our mapping system. There are already care-home provisions in place in the ordinance, including a maximum number of residents and separation requirements. Home care for addiction has become a very popular alternative to clinics or hospitals.”

City staff says it can’t put a number to it, but according to Mr. Bloemberg, “there has been a spike in sober homes and group homes in residential neighborhoods.”

A key piece of the economics behind a sober-living facility is how a family is defined, local planning experts say. The city of Scottsdale defines family as:

“One (1) or more persons occupying a premise and living as a single housekeeping unit as distinguished from a group occupying a boardinghouse, lodginghouse or hotel herein.”

According to Mr. Bloemberg the city of Scottsdale is not contemplating a change in the formal definition.

“One of the biggest challenges we had while we were putting together this ordinance was the federal Fair Housing Act. It does make it unlawful to deny or discourage housing options for persons with disabilities,” he said pointing out a person with a drug addiction, could be considered someone with a disability. “We are proposing the number of residents not be changed right now; our current ordinance allows up to 10 residents and we are going to stick with that number.”

Both Ms. Pollick and Ms. Ashley say they are disappointed.

“Why is the city of Scottsdale afraid to address the issue when all the other cities are addressing it?” Ms. Pollick asked. “I don’t care what the amendment says, it is not enforceable.”

Ms. Ashley says she has lost faith in her local leaders.

“I am totally disgusted with the city council on this issue of not separating care homes from sober homes,” Ms. Ashley said in a Dec. 14 statement to the Independent.

“After attending all five public meetings and hearing the residents voicing the same concerns I have, I feel the meetings were a sham.”

Since Mr. Ashley’s citizen petition, the city of Scottsdale hosted a handful of open houses where, according to city officials, about 300 residents appeared.

“None of the issues addressed were adopted,” Ms. Ashley said of her perception of what came from the public outreach effort. “The fact that care homes and sober homes are now consider under the same umbrella is disheartening. Licensing for sober homes was the main issue voiced by all at the meetings even the care home people. As you know it is not addressed.”

A series of open houses were held over the last several months in an effort for the city of Scottsdale to solicit public comment on possible sober-home regulations. (File photo)

The licensure argument

The Arizona Department of Health Services does not always regulate a residential property that could be considered a sober-living facility, experts there say.

The Department of Health Services provides regulation for entities defined by state statute as a “health care institution.”

“In order to be a health care institution you have to provide certain services,” said Arizona Department of Health Services Assistant Director for the Division of Licensing, Colby Bower in a Dec. 18 phone interview.

“Are people in these sober-living homes being provided a service by a doctor or psychologist? Generally, that answer is, ‘no.’ Generally speaking a sober-living home is just going to be a residential facility. They may have a 12-step program, but that doesn’t qualify. We are not going to be licensing that particular home if it is not delivering that medical care.”

When asked about the behavioral health criteria embedded within state statute that speaks to a licensure requirement for behavioral health facilities, Mr. Bower responded, “there is no statutory authority for us to provide over site.”

“My answer to that would be it would be best to contact your local municipality and see if they have any local regulations and what you would need to do,” he said of what state guidelines are in place for beginning a sober-living facility in a residential home.

Jeff Taylor, government affairs director of the Arizona Recovery Housing Association, says the organization he works for recognized the sober-living marketplace was an unlicensed and unregulated business model.

“What they did was come up with a standard of operations,” he said in a Dec. 11 phone interview. “If you are doing a good job for your clients, then you are doing a good job for your neighbors.”

Mr. Taylor, who is celebrating his 22nd year of sobriety, was once a sober-living facility resident.

“I think we need to look at local problems in our local communities,” Mr. Taylor said.  “Sober living homes are an opportunity … there are people with addictions who are in their 20s and not in their 40s. Most of the sober-living facilities you are talking about (are home to) folks who have graduated from a drug program and now need practice in recovery.”

But getting sober is a rite of passage that, for more and more Americans, is becoming commonplace, Mr. Taylor said.

Sober-living facilities in residential neighborhoods, says Mr. Taylor, play the “most important part of the recovery process.”

Scottsdale Councilman Guy Phillips (File photo)

‘It really doesn’t matter what I believe’

Scottsdale residents are voicing concerns to Councilman Guy Phillips.

“It really doesn’t matter what I believe. That’s how federal law sees it so as a city we must comply,” he said of the notion those who identify themselves as addicts are defined among the disabled.

“I have received numerous emails from residents in Scottsdale telling stories of finding needles in their yard, people leering at their children as they walk to school, drug dealers showing up in the evenings and loud noises, screaming coming from inside the homes,” he said.

Councilman Phillips says the city is putting its best foot forward toward sober-living facility regulations, albeit a cautious foot forward.

“Scottsdale City Council just unanimously passed a sober home ordinance, which is weak by Prescott standards. To take a tougher stand might invoke a lawsuit from the state or federal government, which will ultimately cost hundreds of thousands in taxpayer money with not much hope of winning. In fact, we had to include assisted living in the ordinance, which has never been a problem.”

The Independent reached out to the federal government to see if the Scottsdale zoning separation amendment could be construed as a violation of Fair Housing rules.

“If a complaint like that were to come to HUD then we would investigate it, but I couldn’t answer that question over the phone,” said Brian Sullivan, a spokesman for Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C.

Councilman Phillips points out his No. 1 priority is public safety.

“Our residents’ safety is my No. 1 priority and so it is frustrating for higher government to tie our hands and not allow the protections we deem reasonable, like background checks, monitoring and stiff fines,” he explained.

“Our Legislature is looking at these ideas across the state and hopefully will enact some legislation allowing municipalities to regulate sober homes.”

The conditional use permit process could be an avenue for a better regulatory process, Councilman Phillips says.

“If sober home applicants had to get a CUP — conditional use permit — then we could engage them with residents in their area to address safety issues. As it is now, its up to the individual applicant on how they want to inform their neighbors,” he explained. “Some sober homes are run so well no one knows they are there, while others are less responsible and so we get the emails and horror stories.”

Scottsdale city planning staff contends the police department is not reporting significant calls for service at any Scottsdale-based sober home, licensed or otherwise.

“I would ask any sober home applicant to please be good neighbors and give information to the surrounding neighborhoods so residents have someone to contact if and when a situation arises,” Councilman Phillips said.

“We all want to see recovery for those who are afflicted, but as a city we need to watch those who are gaming the system at the expense of the neighboring residents.”

Northeast Valley Managing Editor Terrance Thornton can be contacted at tthornton@newszap.com

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