City Must Face Claim Law Blocks Group Homes

     (CN) – Newport Beach must face claims that it launched a discriminatory campaign to rid itself of group homes for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.
     Responding to a surge of residential group homes and complaints from neighbors about them, the wealthy Southern California beach community adopted a restrictive ordinance in 2008 that made it much more difficult for such facilities to open and operate. The new law created a substantial permitting scheme for which very few group homes were able to qualify.
     Within a year of the new law’s approval, about one-third of the city’s 73 group homes had shut down or were about to; another year on and only nine remained, according to the ruling.
     Three of the affected group homes, Pacific Shores Properties, Newport Coast Recovery and Yellowstone Women’s First Step House sued the city in federal court, alleging, among other things, that the law discriminated against the disabled and had led to a decline in their revenues of between 40 and 50 percent in two years.
     U.S. District Judge James Selna ruled for the city in Santa Ana District Court, but a unanimous three-judge appeals panel reversed on Friday.
     “Plaintiffs’ evidence shows that the city’s purpose in enacting the ordinance was to exclude group homes from most residential districts and to bring about the closure of existing group homes in those areas,” wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt for the Pasadena-based panel.
     The panel, which included Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, noted that at the same time it was attempting to close group homes, the city had more than 800 “outstanding short-term lodging permits” for vacation homes that, like the group homes, “cater to a revolving clientele that can cause strains on neighborhood resources.”
     The ruling says that the ordinance had originally included vacation homes but was narrowed after “pressure from citizens who owned short-term lodgings.”
     “All of the circumstances surrounding the enactment of the ordinance compel the conclusion that the plaintiffs have raised a triable issue of fact as to whether the ordinance was motivated by the desire to discriminate against the disabled,” Judge Reinhardt wrote.
     “In short, a jury could find, based on the record before us, that the primary purpose of the ordinance was to shut down group homes and prevent new ones from opening in Newport Beach, but to do so in facially neutral terms to avoid invalidation by a court,” he added.
     Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp said Friday that the city council would meet soon to discuss its options, which include seeking a rehearing in the 9th Circuit.
     On a website page about the ordinance, the city states that it “would like to see each of our residential neighborhoods retain its residential character — meaning that parking is managed, commercial activities are limited, and neighbors respect neighbors (in terms of noise, clutter, debris, secondhand smoke, profanity, and other nuisances). We also believe that the rights of disabled persons to reside in legal, safe, habitable spaces in our community must be preserved.”
     The group homes’ attorney, Elizabeth Brancart of Pescadero, Calif., said she was pleased with ruling and noted that the issue is not confined to Southern California’s beachfront neighborhoods.
     “This is an important case because many municipalities in California and other states have sought to reduce or eliminate group homes for recovering substance abusers or to prevent them from operating in their neighborhoods,” she said. “This opinion tells them that adopting an ordinance targeting such homes for a purpose is unlawful.”

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