Council terminates city agreement with sober living facility

By SARA HALL

City Council this week unanimously approved a request from the operator of a drug and alcohol recovery facility to terminate an agreement with city that provided additional allowances for the operator. The action follows the company’s closure of all their Newport Beach properties late last year.

Councilmembers voted 7-0 on Tuesday (Feb. 13) to terminate the contract, a zoning implementation and public benefit agreement, the city entered into with Sober Living by the Sea (doing business as Sierra by the Sea) in 2009. The document authorized the operation of residential care facilities and up to 204 beds throughout the city, subject to specific limitations, for drug and alcohol recovery.

For the past eight years, they were only using 43 of the 204 beds permitted. By ending the agreement, the vested right for SLBTS to operate the potential total of 204 beds will fully terminate. Should they choose to re-establish operations in the city, any future facility would be subject to the current zoning code regulations applicable to residential care facilities as described in city code.

The operator previously had a lot of guaranteed beds, noted City Attorney Aaron Harp. Although the agreement worked well and they were a “good operator” under it, he commented, this is a better situation for the city.

“I think this is absolutely a good thing and I don’t think we give up anything,” Harp said. “I don’t really see that we’re losing anything here. They’re basically giving up a whole bunch of units that they had guaranteed and then, basically, going to have to go through the regular process if they want to come back, which would be complying with the municipal code or complying with state law if there’s some type of exception.”

The operator has voluntarily closed all operations in the city and requested to terminate the agreement, said Assistant City Manager Seimone Jurjis.

“If this entity, Sober Living by the Sea, wants to enter back into community they can go under the state law, which allows them to occupy a residential home with six or less occupants. And if they go over six, like seven occupants, then they’ll need a minor use permit through the city,” he explained.

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Photo by Sara Hall

City Council approved a request to terminate an agreement between the city and a drug and alcohol recovery facility

Overall, councilmembers shared positive comments about ending the agreement and the operator closing its Newport Beach properties.

“We stand to gain quite a bit from them dissolving this and having not sold or transferred it in any way,” said Councilmember Lauren Kleiman.

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The high number of beds allowed and the concentration of units clustered together would not have been allowed without the agreement they had with the city, she said.

Although they had the ability to transfer, they didn’t opt to do that, she noted.

“I think that’s an important point to acknowledge here. They could have sold the entity that had all of these rights built in,” and that didn’t happen, Kleiman said.

Sober Living by the Sea always had the right to operate a facility with six or less beds, as allowed under state law, which is what their use will revert back to if the company wants to return to Newport Beach, added Councilmember Robyn Grant.

“They’re just actually vacating additional rights that they had. They’re not doing anything more from us,” Grant said. “I just want to be clear to the public that we’re not giving them something more or something different. They always had the right to have a six or under, they just had extra rights that now they’ve asked to terminate and we’re terminating gladly.”

Sober Living by the Sea has been subject to annual reviews to demonstrate a good faith effort in meeting all of the terms or conditions of the agreement.

At the October 24 meeting, council heard the 14th annual review of the zoning agreement for Sierra by the Sea. The document includes a provision that a periodic review be conducted at least once every 12 months. Councilmembers voted 5-1 (Avery was absent and Kleiman dissented) and found that Sierra by the Sea had demonstrated good faith compliance with the terms of the agreement.

According to the October staff report, despite minor parking citations, no significant violations had been observed or reported. City staff reported that they conducted a thorough review of SLBTS’ operations and requirements of the agreement and found that the company is in compliance.

Although Kleiman disagreed with the staff assessment after she reviewed the agreement, licensing information, inspection reports, citation records, calls for service and conducted her own site visit. As she walked around the facilities (which was not announced to the operator prior to her arrival), Kleiman found overflowing trash bins, illegally parked cars, cigarette butts and other trash littered on the grounds and people smoking.

“I have a strong concern about the safety and care of the residents of these facilities,” she said in October.

During the October review, it was brought to the city staff’s attention that the operator had decided to close all its facilities in Newport Beach effective December 10. The operator later requested to terminate the zoning agreement.

According to the October staff report, Sober Living by the Sea officials “explained that the recovery care model had evolved to re-focus treatment from smaller residential facilities into larger hospital-type facilities in other areas of the United States.”

At the October meeting, Sierra by the Sea Director of Quality and Compliance Julie Thorne confirmed the company’s plans to close their Newport Beach properties. There is no assignment of the facilities to any other operator, Thorne added.

The Planning Commission also heard the item on December 21 and unanimously recommended terminating the agreement.

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Sara Hall covers City Hall and is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.

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