The Coastal Star

Along the Coast: Feds give cities leeway to decide sober home sites

As Delray Beach begins

ordinance changes,

others in area plan to stand pat

By Jane Smith

    The U.S. Cavalry arrived last month in the form of a 20-page federal joint statement on sober homes, delivered by U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel.
    She hoped beleaguered cities in her district and around the country would use the legal guidance to help protect their neighborhoods from over-saturation of the homes while safeguarding the rights of people in recovery.  
    So far, only Delray Beach among south county’s four large coastal municipalities will use the statement when revising its reasonable accommodation ordinance. The local statute covers group recovery homes.
    “The city will be able to say how many is too many in one neighborhood,” Mayor Cary Glickstein said at the Nov. 10 announcement. Previously, cities had to accept group recovery homes wherever they wanted to be.
    Now cities can consider two issues when deciding whether to grant a waiver and allow more than three unrelated people to live together. The municipalities can weigh the financial impact group homes have on single-family neighborhoods as well as the cost for city services, particularly 911 calls for relapsed addicts succumbing to overdoses.
    The revised joint statement, crafted by the departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development, now recognizes that zoning and land use are best determined locally, Glickstein and Frankel said.
    The revision was sparked in May when Frankel led a federal housing official and his staff on a tour of Delray Beach sober homes. The housing official was shocked by what he saw: suitcases, clothing and personal belongings strewn on lawns where patients had been evicted. He vowed to talk with Justice Department lawyers and craft a joint statement that also protects the rights of recovering addicts, who are protected under federal privacy and disability laws.
    Elected leaders and officials in three other coastal cities are less enthused.
    Boynton Beach Mayor Steven Grant and Lantana Mayor Dave Stewart don’t see enough of a change in the revised joint statement. They say if people are receiving treatment in the homes or selling drugs there, they have ordinances that make those activities illegal.
    “We are not going to do anything different at this point in time,” Stewart said.
    Grant said his city will continue to use nuisance abatement and code enforcement to monitor the group homes. He also wants to see the group homes pay the county’s 6 percent bed tax because they offer stays of less than six months.
    Boca Raton, battle-scarred from losing federal court lawsuits over sober home ordinances, is more cautious. It had to pay more than $2 million in attorneys’ fees in the cases.
    City Attorney Diana Grub Frieser recently gave a lukewarm assessment on the statement to the City Council.
    “I don’t think it is as much of a deviation from what the case law already does allow,” she told the council members on Nov. 22. Frieser said she liked the language that allows cities to deny the waivers under certain circumstances but proving the circumstances would “put an undue burden on a local government.”
    Delray Beach leaders know they have to walk a fine line when revising the ordinance.
    “It’s not a panacea,” City Attorney Max Lohman said a few days after the statement was delivered. “But it can be used to draft a more even-handed ordinance that also protects the homes’ residents.”
    Police Chief Jeff Goldman called the statement a “game changer. … Over-saturation is a major issue as it pertains to the heroin epidemic in Delray Beach.” The city had less of a problem with heroin overdoses in 2015 compared with this year.
    The city is using outside counsel Terrill Pyburn to bring a revised ordinance to the Planning & Zoning Board’s Dec. 19 meeting and then to the City Commission in January, the mayor said.
    “We feel the proposed changes will be mutually beneficial to all Delray citizens, including those deserving protections in group homes,” Glickstein said via email.
    The city had a revised ordinance already on the board’s Nov. 21 agenda. The major changes required the group medical homes to apply annually for the waiver, said Tim Stillings, planning and zoning director.
    As of mid-November, Stillings said the majority of accommodations were for a waiver to the unrelated persons rule. Since 2012, the city has granted 82 waivers, he said.
    In addition, city code inspectors work with the police department to identify illegal practices, such as drug sales, occurring at sober homes, said Michael Coleman, director of community improvement. So far this year, 21 sober home operators were evicted after the property’s owners were alerted to illegal activity, Coleman said.

Arrests made, bills proposed
    Separately, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Sober Homes Task Force is recommending some changes to state laws to weed out rogue operators.
    Suggested revisions include: Increasing the penalties for patient brokering, creating an amendment that bans lying on websites designed to attract potential patients, changing voluntary certification of recovery residences to mandatory and providing more money to the state Department of Children & Families to better police the recovery industry.
    Rep. Bill Hager has agreed to sponsor the bills in the Florida House during the 2017 legislative session.
    “There is absolutely bipartisan and statewide support for this issue,” said Hager, whose district includes Delray Beach.
    The task force’s law enforcement arm arrested a Boynton Beach treatment center owner, James Kigar, and manager, Chris Hutson, in late October. It also seized the financial records of their Whole Life Recovery center.
    Since then, four Delray Beach sober home operators have been charged with violating the patient brokering law. In an effort to circumvent the law, authorities say, they allegedly accepted payments, called “case management fees,” for each insured patient directed to Whole Life for treatment.
    One operator who was charged runs a sober home on Lowson Boulevard in Delray Beach; its owners received a 2016 homestead exemption. Their names are listed on corporate records for Southern Palms Oasis Inc., along with John Dudek, who was charged with six counts of patient brokering. The case is ongoing.
    Two brothers, Bryan and Patrick Norquist, operated sober homes in the proposed Swinton Commons project in the Old School Square Historic Arts District, the heart of the trendy downtown area. They were charged with 16 counts of patient brokering.
    The fourth Delray Beach sober-home operator is Howard James Fowler Jr., who runs a sober home at 705 SW Sixth Ave. He was charged with 14 counts of patient brokering.
    Delray Beach Detective Nicole Lucas played a lead role in the case that led to the arrests of the sober home operators. Her confidential informant tipped her about Whole Life’s practices.
    She wants to shut down the bad providers who are in the recovery industry only for the money.
    “If it’s all about treatment,” Lucas said, “then we are going to save a lot more people.”

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