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Divided Commission Sends Group Homes Regulation Questions to Council

The San Rafael Planning Commission could not decide on three options for how to regulate community concern's over unlicensed sober living homes, and will refer to the City Council.

After three and half hours of discussion, the San Rafael Planning Commission was not able to decide on how to regulate unlicensed groups homes in the city, and will pass the decision on to the City Council.

Unlicensed groups homes stirred controversy last year, when several neighbors voiced their worries about two sober living facilities that opened in the Gerstle Park and Forbes neighborhoods.The controversy lead to the council placing a moratorium on such facilities so city staff could state and federal laws regarding their regulation.

Sober living environments are locations where people recovering from alcoholism and drug addiction can live in a dorm-like setting with other people in recovery. Caught in a medical grey zone, this form of housing does not require licensing by any state agency. City staff has located 16 sober living homes in San Rafael, and many neighbors are pushing for regulation.

How to regulate is a question the Planning Commission could not agree on in its Tuesday meeting. City staff presented the commission with three options: do not regulate and wait to see how state laws evolve; enforce the same regulations as a boarding house; and make new revisions that limit the number of leases in a household.

“We don’t have any evidence at the moment of real substantial impacts from this use that are significantly differentiated from normal impacts of single family homes," Deputy City Attorney Lisa Goldfien said at the Tuesday meeting when discussing the idea of no regulation.

Despite the lack of licensing, many sober living homes enforce rules and follow guidelines developed by health agencies. In the past year, the city received 13 complaints about a Marin Street sober home. Most were concerning abandoned vehicles or vehicles parked in a red zone. One was for evening noise and another was a report of petty theft.

“They’re very interested in promoting these best practices to maintain their place in the neighborhoods and get along with those in the community," Goldfien said.

If the city decides to regulate sober homes like boarding houses, San Rafael’s zoning ordinance only permits boarding houses in medium and high density residential zones. Several neighbors supported this option, since the homes operate as businesses although they are in an area zoned as residential.

"These are commercial operations. They’re for-profit operations," Forbes neighbor John Collette said. "That has to be recognized."

“I think most [sober living environments] want to be good neighbors," Gerstle Park neighbor Hugo Landecker said. "Some are, most are not.”

The United States Housing and Urban Development Department requires cities to provide housing for disabled individuals, known as “reasonable accommodation,” and recovering alcoholics and drug addicts fall in this category. The city could face lawsuit if they denied “reasonable accommodation” to a sober living home during the permitting process, which city staff feared could happen if they regulated sober living homes like boarding houses.

Under the third option, the city could require good neighbor policies and parking standards, but enforcement would be difficult due to limited staff. Faced with budget cuts, the city's number of code enforcers has gone from seven people to two over the years.

“It seems to be that imposing additional regulations is going to additional cost and we'll be baiting ourselves for litigation," Commissioner Barrett Schaefer said.

Without a consensus, the commission passed the staff's report and recommendations on to the City Council with their notes. The Council is expected to make a decision on the item sometime in the next month.

How do you think the sober living homes should be regulated? Tell us in the comments.

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Niki Saghafi November 27, 2012 at 01:29 AM
I'd be curious to know of the 13 complaints filed against the house(es) on Marin St., how many of them came from Ms. Oneidi?
Niki Saghafi November 27, 2012 at 01:36 AM
Sorry-her last name is Eneidi. Andrea Eneidi.

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