By Jane Smith
The three largest South County cities continue on separate paths to address problematic sober homes in their residential neighborhoods.
On Jan. 17, Boynton Beach city commissioners approved a moratorium on all group home applications until June 4. Sober homes fall under the group home category in the city code. The recovery residences cater to people who want to live together in sobriety. Treatment does not occur inside the houses.
Delray Beach is using a two-pronged approach.
On Jan. 24, commissioners approved an update to the city’s reasonable accommodation ordinance that requires all group homes to register annually for an accommodation that allows more than three unrelated adults to live together. The city also wants the property owner’s name and signature to prove that the owner knows how the home will be used. The city will use that info if it needs to contact the owner about code violations.
The previous week, the city hired planner/lawyer Daniel Lauber to help city staff review ordinances and suggest new ones that do not run afoul of federal anti-discrimination laws.
Boca Raton staff is still trying to decide how to address the changes allowed by the revised federal joint statement U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel helped secure, said city spokeswoman Chrissy Gibson.
In November, the Justice and Housing and Urban Development departments issued a revised guidance statement that gives local governments the ability to deny a group home application if it violates a city’s “zoning scheme” or puts an undue burden on its finances and administration.
Boynton Beach legal and development staffs wanted to stop group home applications from coming in while they reviewed the city’s reasonable accommodation ordinance. They wanted time to decide if it might be revised based on the revised federal statement. They chose June 4 as the moratorium’s end date to give time for review.
At the Boynton Beach City Commission meeting on Jan. 17, the mayor and one resident had a testy exchange about the legality of the moratorium.
Citing a federal anti-discrimination law, the male resident — who said he was a recovering alcoholic — insisted that: “No private or public entity shall interfere, restrict or deny any person with a disability any social services, including group homes and halfway houses.”
Addicts living together while maintaining sobriety are protected by federal anti-discrimination laws.
But Mayor Steven Grant said the moratorium was aimed at sober home owners and operators, not addicts. “You can’t just take [out] one clause, because it’s a big act,” Grant said about the federal law.
Boynton Beach City Commissioner Joe Casello asked the city attorney, “Are we within our legal rights to do something like this?”
City Attorney Jim Cherof said, “Yes, sir. It wouldn’t be in front of you if I did not think so.”
Boynton Beach commissioners unanimously passed the moratorium.
But Delray Beach’s consultant thinks Boynton Beach has put itself in a tough legal position.
The moratorium is “almost certainly illegal,” Lauber said. “If someone challenged it in court, I doubt it could survive.”
Lauber said Frankel’s office staff referred Delray Beach to him. He is past president of the American Planning Association and the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is widely published on topics of group homes and federal anti-discrimination laws.
Based in Illinois, Lauber has primarily worked with cities and group homes in the Midwest, although he has consulted for cities and community residences nationwide.
The Delray Beach work will be his second foray into Florida. In 2002, he was a legal consultant for the city of Daytona Beach when it was sued over Fair Housing Act violations, according to Lauber’s résumé. The city settled the case the next year, allowing Hearthstone Fellowship to continue operating the Peabody House treatment center.
Lauber said he will examine the situation in Delray Beach, where sober homes are said to cluster in certain neighborhoods. He said more than one group home per block could lead to a de facto social services district and prevent residents of the home from becoming part of the community.
“Each group home has to be looked at on an individual basis to determine its impact on surrounding home values,” Lauber said.
Delray Beach is compiling a listing of group home locations. The estimated 200 sober homes in Delray Beach are too many for a city of its size, he said.
Lauber agreed to be paid $15,000 for 50 hours of work. If the city decides it wants him to help write a sober homes licensing plan, it would cost extra, he said.
Lauber fancies himself more of a planner than a lawyer. That’s why he prefers the LULU acronym that he used in his John Marshall Law Review article: “A Real LULU: Zoning for Group Homes and Halfway Houses Under the Fair Housing Act Amendments.”
LULU, he wrote, was coined by a Rutgers University professor in the 1980s. The acronym stands for “locally unwanted land use.”
Lawyers, he said, prefer to use NIMBY, which stands for “not in my backyard.”