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Neighbors Oppose Plans to Transform Treatment Center

May 22, 2000|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lowenthal, now a state assemblyman, said the city attorney's office explored whether Banner must separate his facilities and concluded that the foundation did not have to do so.

He said Banner threatened to sue the city, alleging violations of the federal Fair Housing Act if officials tried to block his expansion. The law prohibits discrimination against the disabled. No lawsuit was filed.

"After that, there was a period of relative peace," Lowenthal said. "The area isn't zoned for institutional uses. If he ran his operations as separate facilities, he was OK."

Lowenthal said, however, that Banner began looking for other properties closer to downtown, but was unsuccessful and continued to buy parcels in the Rose Park area.

In December 1998, Banner first sought a zoning change and a conditional use permit to create a single campus to encompass his facilities. He wanted the city to give him control of an alley that separates his buildings and he requested permission to build fences and a centralized dining and kitchen area.

Four months later, the planning department's staff recommended that the commission adopt the changes. Basically, the staff said, the proposals would not "adversely affect the character, livability or appropriate development of the surrounding area."

Banner subsequently withdrew the request and reapplied in September 1999, a month after the city passed an ordinance to help enforce federal fair housing laws. The ordinance allows changes in building and zoning requirements to ensure that the disabled have equal access to housing.

The foundation's new request sought approval of a common kitchen and dining area and of plans to increase the occupancy of five homes to more than six people each. Banner also wanted the city to drop a requirement for 10 new parking spaces. Again, city staff members recommended approval of the changes.

In letters to the city, Banner said that during open houses and meetings with the public there was little opposition to his facilities. Rather than being a detriment to the community, he said, the foundation and his clients have worked to improve Rose Park by regularly participating in public service activities.

But Banner's opponents say they have remained silent over the years because the federal government has investigated and prosecuted individuals who spoke out against facilities for the disabled--a group protected by the Fair Housing Act. Banner also threatened to sue them, they said.

In December 1998, the picture changed. A federal judge in Northern California ruled that investigators for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development violated the 1st Amendment rights of three people in Berkeley who wrote articles, talked to public officials and filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop a project.

Emboldened by the decision, dozens of people, including property owners and advocates for the disabled, have intensified their opposition to Banner's plans over the past 16 months.

"It is clear he is trying to create a large group home, where the law only provides for small treatment centers," said Daniel P. Bleiberg, a partner in several apartment ventures in Rose Park. "No one ever envisioned someone buying up so many homes. The zoning should be adhered to."

Opponents say that five of the foundation's licensed facilities now exceed occupancy limits and should be at least half a mile apart under city zoning requirements. Banner's request for the changes even states that he wants to legalize several group homes operating with more than the six occupants allowed by zoning regulations.

"It is unique to have a cluster of licensed care facilities applying for these changes," said Harold Simkins, the city's senior planner. "He already has a campus-type setting. Some of the buildings exceed the zoning regulations."

Simkins said the restrictions will not be enforced until Banner has completed his appeal to the council or fails to reach a solution during ongoing discussions with the city.

Opponents also say that Banner's desire to create an institution conflicts with the intent of federal fair housing laws: the integration of disabled people into mainstream residential life.

"I don't like institutional settings. They isolate people," said Ben Rockwell, vice president of the local chapter of Californians for Disability Rights, a statewide organization with about 1,000 members. "Treatment centers and sober living homes should be scattered throughout the city, so people are in normal environments taking part in the community."

On April 20, the Planning Commission denied Banner's request. In a written report, the commission stated that other housing and rehabilitation facilities that did not exceed occupancy limits were available in the city.

If the request were granted, the commission said, Banner's facilities would "essentially become an institutional compound" inconsistent with residential uses in Rose Park.

"The intent of [federal] law is to try to integrate people with disabilities into a residential setting, but the way he has acquired so many houses, so close together, in my mind, is not accomplishing the intent of the law," said Deputy City Atty. Mike Mais, who specializes in land use.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Treatment Campus Proposal

The Substance Abuse Foundation of Long Beach wants to create a campus-like atmosphere for its properties (shaded in black) along 7th Street between Obispo and Freeman avenues. The plan has run into opposition from community groups and the planning commission.

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