By Margie Plunkett
and Tim Pallesen
Delray Beach coastal 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 single-family residential neighborhoods.
The controversy is a familiar one in Boca Raton, which, following an outcry from residents, passed ordinances in 2002 restricting sober houses to areas of the city zoned for hospitals or motels. The city was sued by the owners of the sober houses and in 2007 a federal judge struck down the ordinances, saying they were discriminatory.
In Delray Beach last month, 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 is a big business 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 outcry in Delray Beach was sparked when word leaked out that Caron Foundation, a Pennsylvania-based drug and alcohol 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.
Andrew Rothermel, a spokesman for Caron, a nonprofit treatment agency with a center in Boca Raton, declined to comment on whether Caron had purchased the house at 740 N. Ocean Blvd.
Rothermel said: “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.”
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.
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.”
BPOA members 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 name and location were protected by law and would not be revealed.
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.
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. There’s no reason we have to tolerate this.”
Delray Beach Mayor Woodie McDuffie later sent a letter to local state lawmakers, 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.”
Heidi Sargeant said she is a next-door neighbor, has three children and is vehemently opposed to transient housing. She said it has the potential to be unsafe, adding, “Where are we going to put the eight cars?”
The house will have a chef and a masseuse, she said, adding, “Where are these people parking? I’m concerned about the value of our homes. Do you want that next to you? I don’t think so.”
The possibility of a lawsuit blanketed discussion at both government meetings, noting previous Boca Raton litigation that has guided Delray Beach policy over concerns of potential suits from neighbors or sober-home operators.
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.”