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Appeals Court sees possible bias in group-homes ordinance

9th Circuit says restrictions on sober-living facilities in Newport may be challenged at trial.

September 20, 2013|By Maura Dolan and Jeremiah Dobruck

SAN FRANCISCO — A Newport Beach ordinance that restricts group homes for recovering addicts may have been motivated by illegal discrimination and may be challenged at trial, a federal appeals court ruled unanimously Friday.

The decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeal revived lawsuits against the city over a 2008 zoning ordinance that drove most group homes out of the city and forced others to limit services.

The law was seen as a model for other California communities grappling with complaints about group homes in residential neighborhoods.

"Obviously, this is a huge victory for sober-living homes and group homes," said Mary Helen Beatificato, chief executive of Morningside Recovery in Newport Beach. "This ordinance is going down, no doubt about it."

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Morningside decided to move its 36 sober-living clients out of the city after an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled last month that the operator violated Newport Beach law.

Newport Beach passed the ordinance after residents complained that dozens of group homes had created parking, traffic, noise and second-hand smoke problems in residential neighborhoods. Most of the homes were located in the Balboa Peninsula and West Newport.

Bob Rush, a West Newport resident who has been fighting to limit group homes since 2006, called the allegation of discrimination "laughable."

He said he once counted 15 group homes on his eight-block street.

"I saw one day there was a group of guys standing in front of a house to be picked up by a bus, and two guys were wearing L.A. Jail orange jumpsuits," Rush said.

Operators of the homes challenged the ordinance in district court and lost. Friday's decision made it possible for homes that have lost business or closed to collect substantial financial compensation.

Elizabeth Brancart, an attorney for three group homes, said they hope the law will be overturned. She said other cities eager to clamp down on group homes have been monitoring the litigation.

"This will give them pause," Brancart said. "Even if the laws are neutral on their face, if they are clearly targeted at particular groups for discriminatory purposes, the neutrality of the language of their laws won't save them."

Newport Beach City Attorney Aaron Harp said the ruling would force the city to go to trial unless the City Council decides to appeal. Harp said the ordinance was adopted in a "fair process" after multiple public hearings.

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