Scottsdale sober home regulations sprout teeth at commission level

A public meeting was held Thursday, April 27 at the Via Linda Senior Center in Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

In step with several other Arizona municipalities, the city of Scottsdale is in the midst of creating its own text amendment to address sober living and group homes in residential neighborhoods.

On Wednesday, Oct. 25, the Scottsdale Planning Commission voted 5-1 to move forward with proposed language for an amendment to the city’s zoning ordinance, specifically residential areas, to address various types of care homes and group homes.

The Planning Commission is an advisory board comprised of seven members appointed by city council, and is tasked with reviewing, evaluating and approving rezoning requests, general plan amendments, permits and policies, among other things.

Planning Commissioner Christian Serena was the lone dissenting vote, citing the desire for stronger language in the text.

City officials have been working on the sober living and group homes amendment for over a year, and Planning Commission has had two other discussions on the topic this fall.

Spurred by an outcry from local citizens about concerns that single-family residences are being used as care homes to provide services to residents with disabilities, the Scottsdale City Council directed staff to begin the text process on Aug. 30, 2016.

In August 2014, a citizen group filed a petition with the city clerk asking the city council to “address the situation by enacting zoning regulations for ‘sober homes,’” according to the Aug. 30 city council report.

The main concerns raised in the petition were traffic, parking and public safety, Independent records show.

The objectives of this text amendment was to “integrate sober living into residential areas while minimizing impacts on neighborhoods,” and “craft ordinance that is consistent with federal fair housing and state statues.”

Since that time, the city has hosted a number of open houses to discuss possible next-steps with local residents. During an April open house at the Via Linda Senior Center, Scottsdale Planning and Development director Randy Grant and Planner Greg Bloemberg presented information and an audience of about 50 people voiced myriad concerns ranging from lewd behavior to general operations.

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.

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. 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.

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

In addition to Arizona law, a U.S. representative hailing from California, Rep. Darrell Issa, introduced HR 472 — which is coined the “safe recovery and community empowerment act — seeks to amend the Fair Housing Act to no longer prohibiting certain control measures.”

For the city of Scottsdale, the effort has been focused on amending the city’s current ordinance to provide neighborhood protections and to be consistent with federal and state law, according to a city staff report. In an effort to do that, the proposed amendment seeks to increase oversight and clarify separation requirements between care homes.

Amended areas include adding land uses related to home care for disabilities, amend and add definitions, strengthen the use criteria associated with care homes and add new sections to the ordinance intended to address disability accommodations.

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

109 Scottsdale care homes

Mr. Bloemberg took the lead during the Oct. 25 Planning Commission meeting hosted at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd, reviewing the information gathered over the past several months.

Following his presentation, one Scottsdale resident used her allotted 3-minute public comment to give voice to concerns with the proposed amendment.

In a presentation to the commission, Mr. Bloemberg explained the steady-rise municipalities are experiencing when it comes to care homes.

“There’s 109 licensed care homes mapped in Scottsdale,” he said, noting there are care home provisions already in place, including the maximum number of residents allowed in each facility.

“Home care for addiction has become a very popular alternative to clinics or hospitals. Scottsdale has seen a spike in the number of sober homes and group homes in residential neighborhoods, which was one of the driving facts of this particular text amendment.”

Mr. Bloemberg says the city has participated in extensive community outreach, including emailing notifications to over 500 Homeowners Associations when the process started.

“We’ve received dozens of comments and concerns and issues during the course of our outreach,” he said.

The four areas of concern most prominent, Mr. Bloemberg says, are:

  • Public Safety: quality of life for neighborhoods;
  • Licensing: accountability of operators (oversight);
  • Distinction of uses: sober homes vs. elderly care;
  • Enforcement of HOA regulations.

Other comments yielded from the open houses included the city’s own licensing for care homes, the number of residents living on-site, and a neighborhood notification requirement for proposed care homes.

Although many points were brought up during four open houses in the past year, some are not feasible for the city, Mr. Bloemberg said, pointing out the desire for HOA regulations.

“We cannot do that because they’re private contracts,” he said.

The largest hurdle for crafting this text amendment is staying within federal and state laws, which makes it unlawful to deny or discriminate housing options for people with disabilities, Mr. Bloemberg said.

“The FHA has a definition for disability, which is: a mental or physical impairment, which substantially limits one or more life activities,” he explained.

“The unique thing about that definition is it doesn’t distinguish between disabilities, it just says a disability is a mental or physical impairment. An addiction to drugs or alcohol considered a disability, but disability is an all-encompassing term, which is why we don’t propose a distinction between adult care homes and sober homes.”

The proposed amendment recommendations include:

  • A maximum of 10 disabled residents, plus two staff members;
  • An increase in separation requirement from 500/750-feet to 1,200 feet in all directions;
  • Additional oversight by way of proof of license from the state;
  • Annual safety inspection by the fire department, in addition to an initial inspection;
  • Incorporated language that would provide those with disabilities to ask for disability accommodation that would allow for flexibility when warranted in development standards or other requirements.

When asked by Planning Commissioner Kelsey Young why Scottsdale hadn’t followed the route of other cities and hired an outside expert, current Planning Director Tim Curtis said the need is not there.

“In a nutshell, there hasn’t really been any evidence to suggest that a study is necessary,” Mr. Curtis explained. “Even during open houses, when we had police respond to questions regarding service calls, they’ve clearly indicated that there hasn’t been an issue with service calls beyond normal households. There really hasn’t been any reason for us to do that study.”

The city of Prescott’s ordinance was brought up as a model-example during the Planning Commission meeting, with city officials noting that neighboring municipalities of Paradise Valley and Phoenix have both passed their own ordinances.

While provisions that others have passed might work for now, there is no proof that their ordinances don’t violate the Fair Housing Act, Deputy City Attorney Joe Padilla explained to the commission.

“It’s yet to be seen whether those ordinances do or don’t violate the Federal Fair Housing Act with those distinctions,” he said. “In essence they may have adopted them, whether they ultimately survive a challenge is unknown yet.”

Mr. Padilla says the city of Scottsdale has analyzed these laws, and attempting to differentiate types of disabilities most likely won’t be fruitful.

“City attorney’s staff has analyzed these laws and determined that an attempt to distinguish between those particular disabilities and those types of homes is going to run afoul with the Federal Fair Housing Act,” he said.

“If you’re asking why did they do it their way? They had different criteria, different reasons possibly but we don’t know if it’s going to withstand a challenge by one of these companies that buys these homes and then opens these up — they could successfully challenge that ordinance.”

Mr. Padilla noted that there’s differences in opinions of what would violate federal rules, saying that Scottsdale is taking a slightly different approach in regulations.

“So you have what you have but it is the result of a lot of legal analysis,” he said.

Christian Serena

Planning Commissioner Christian Serena, the lone dissenter in the vote, questioned how strict Scottsdale could go with their language, comparing the proposed amendment to Prescott’s ordinance.

Overall, Mr. Serena says he based his decision to vote “no” on the ordinance on the outcry from the community, and the lack of solid opinion or proof that the Scottsdale ordinance couldn’t have stronger language.

“I think the outcry from the community and people I’ve met at coffee shops want that differentiation,” Mr. Serena said of the litany of disabilities.

“Now I understand there’s some rules that we are not going to try to discriminate between two different classes of people, but that being said, if there was a way to separate those up into a certain point — I think other communities are doing that — unless you’re telling me right now it’s marching through the courts it doesn’t sound like there’s a significant legal challenge on those.”

The Scottsdale City Council is tentatively expected to hold a hearing on the ordinance on Dec. 5.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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