By Margie Plunkett and Tim Pallesen
Beach area residents rallied in December in protest of planned luxury beach-side sober houses, filling commission chambers at two meetings and spurring city leaders to scour law in search of changes that will protect residential neighborhoods.
Neighbors protested laws that allow houses in residential neighborhoods to be rented in such a way that dozens of unrelated people can reside there during the course of a year.
Residents argued that the safety and security of their neighborhoods were compromised by allowing sober houses — which they claimed are big business that’s contrary to residential use.
“We’re asking for support for preserving single family neighborhoods,” said Mary Renaud, president of the Beach Property Owners Association.
The city showed its support at its Jan. 3 meeting when commissioners agreed to hire the South Florida law firm, Weiss Serota Helfman Pastoriza Cole & Boniske as well as the powerful Washington D.C. legal and lobbying firm, Patton, Boggs and Blow to assess the city’s sober housing ordinances and regulations. A maximum expenditure of $125,000 was approved.
The outcry was sparked when word leaked out that an addiction treatment center had purchased a house at 740 N. Ocean Blvd. for $1.6 million and had been approved to house up to seven people while they went through treatment at another location.
Residents pored through a stack of city records and determined that the Pennsylvania-based treatment center, Caron Foundation, sought and had been granted permission for the sober house.
They also learned Caron had made a second “reasonable accommodation” request for another beach side house.
While the application from West Palm Beach attorney James Green did not divulge the intended address, citing confidentiality protections, it did note that the house contained 7,481 square feet of living space.
Through other records, they learned that a six-bedroom, five-bath house at 1232 Seaspray Ave. was on the market for $2.995 million.
It has 7,481 square feet of living space. As of early this month, the house was still on the market.
Andrew Rothermel a spokesman for Caron, a non-profit drug and alcohol abuse treatment agency with a center in Boca Raton, declined to comment on whether Caron had purchased the house at 740 N. Ocean Blvd.
Asked if there were any other houses Caron was interested in, he said, “There may be one more.”
Rothermel added: “We’ve been good neighbors in Delray for 20 years,” noting Caron owns a 46-unit apartment building off Lowson Boulevard for patients who need more support.
“We have every intention of maintaining the character of the neighborhood and being good neighbors.”
Change sought requiring fewer annual tenants
Within a week of the initial Dec. 13 Commission meeting where the BPOA and other neighbors first protested, the Planning and Zoning board recommended commissioners lower the number of times a home in a single-family residential neighborhood can be rented to twice a year. That was stricter than both the three-times-a-year policy commissioners had asked the board to consider at its Dec. 19 meeting and current law, which allows for six rentals a year.
The number of rentals, however, is only the beginning of review of the complex issue, City Attorney Brian Shutt said, adding there’s much research to do.
Planning and Zoning Chairman Cary Glickstein acknowledged: “We’re not going to accomplish everything tonight. This is a step. We want to draw a line in the sand and build from that.”
Members of the BPOA plus others grew noticeably perturbed at the Dec. 13 meeting when told that an ocean-side sober house had already been approved — but that the location of the property was protected by law and could not be revealed.
Another outcry went up when Mayor Woodie McDuffie said that if sober house properties are kept up, they won’t affect neighbors’ property values. The mayor cut the public hearings short when the crowd’s emotions heated further.
Warned at both meetings against making remarks that could be discriminatory when directed at “sober” or “halfway” houses, residents said they are against “transient” housing in all uses in residential districts, not just those that may be protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act or the Fair Housing Amendment.
Treatment centers have successfully argued in federal court that cities cannot discriminate against people with alcohol or drug addictions. In addition, they have maintained that they do not have to disclose locations of sober houses because the addresses of people in treatment are part of their medical records, and thus, confidential.
Complex ordinance requires careful review
During the commission meeting, former Commissioner Gary Eliopoulos said that in July 2009 he and other city lawmakers had changed regulations, addressing the number of rentals as well as limiting the number of unrelated adults living in a house to three.
Eliopoulos said there are instances in which the law has been interpreted to mean that each bed or room in a house can be rented six times a year.
“I’m urging this commission to go back and look at that ordinance,” he said. “If we got it wrong, I would urge you to get outside counsel and get it right.”
McDuffie later in the meeting discussed “not rushing it” in reviewing the complex ordinances. He also noted that it could cost the city to boost enforcement to make sure transient housing is following code.
“This is going to send a clear signal that transient housing is going to be scrutinized,” he said.
Heeding those words, the city has hired recently retired Police Lt. Marc Woods to inspect and monitor transient houses throughout the city as well as educate the owners to city regulations.
McDuffie later sent a letter to the local legislative delegation, urging the state to step in to license and regulate the substance-abuse treatment industry.
“We need your help on this issue more than anything else
I have confronted since taking office,” McDuffie wrote.
“Our Village by the Sea receives rave reviews for the beach, Atlantic Avenue, our events and how well it is run, but we have another name that is not so complimentary: The Drug Rehab Capital of the United States.”
During the Planning and Zoning board meeting, Director Paul Dorling said that sober house owners come before his office to seek “reasonable accommodation” to allow more residents than the law permits. He did not recall denying any of the dozens of requests for sober houses throughout the city.
Concern about ‘strangers’ and litigation
Resident Bill McCauley said he had been good friends with the owner of the home at 740 N. Ocean Blvd. that apparently was purchased by local attorney Michael Weiner for the Caron Foundation.
“Rick was a great neighbor,” McCauley said, noting he died last year of cancer. Caron plans 48 or more different tenants each year, McCauley said. “How can I have a neighborhood relationship with 48 different strangers?”
The possibility of a lawsuit blanketed discussion at both government meetings, from note of previous Boca Raton litigation that has guided Delray Beach policy over concerns of potential suits from neighbors or sober home operators.
In that vein, attorney Weiner had a court reporter and videographer at the Dec. 19 Planning and Zoning meeting.
Residents urged officials not to be swayed by the threat of a lawsuit.
“There are going to be lawsuits no matter what,” said resident and lawyer Scott Richman, explaining that the board’s actions shouldn’t be formulated merely to avoid a suit. “First thing: You need to protect the citizens.”
Warned Caron’s Rothermel: other cities have lost lawsuits when they opposed similar requests for sober houses in residential neighborhoods.
“They suffered in court and spent a tremendous amount of money fighting it.”
By Margie Plunkett and Tim Pallesen