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Estate Owners Can't Stop Rehab House

Drugs: Malibu neighbors lose court fight. The dispute may augur a trend in wake of drug diversion law.

July 12, 2001|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Louis Diblosi Jr. bought a $4-million estate on a gated private drive in Malibu, he didn't expect a cluster of drug abusers would move in across the street.

But that's what could happen in September, when the Passages residential drug rehabilitation center hopes to open for business on Meadow Court. Owner Chris Prentiss, who is seeking state licensing, plans to charge clients $37,500 a month for treatment and the ocean view.

Prentiss is fresh from a courtroom triumph over Diblosi and other neighbors, a victory he assured when he reduced the number of patients he plans to treat in the 12-bedroom, 14,000-square-foot house to six. Under state law, California cities lack the power to intervene if rehabilitation facilities house no more than six clients at a time.

"If they can put a drug rehabilitation facility into this neighborhood, they can put one into any neighborhood," said Santa Monica attorney Craig M. Collins, who represents Diblosi and his neighbors.

Last month, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Alan B. Haber denied the homeowners' request for a temporary restraining order against Grasshopper House, which operates Passages.

Malibu City Councilman Ken Kearsley, who lives nearby, said the city already houses at least five other drug rehabilitation facilities.

"The intent of the law was to serve the community they're in," he said, wondering if Malibu, with 12,575 residents, has more than its fair share of such facilities.

"This is not a NIMBY [issue]," Kearsley said, referring to the "not in my backyard" anti-development sentiment. "The question is: Is there a need in our community for this many" treatment centers?

Diblosi's lawyers predicted that their client's dilemma may be repeated across the state as California comes to terms with the demands of Proposition 36, which as of July 1 began diverting drug offenders from prisons and jails to treatment centers. In Los Angeles County alone, officials expect 20,000 patients a year will enter drug treatment centers instead of prison.

Beverly Hills attorney Thomas M. Ware, who represents homeowner associations including the Meadow Court group, said the Malibu neighbors are on the front end of a trend.

"I don't think too many people anticipated this reaction when they approved Proposition 36," he said.

County drug treatment officials say they are currently planning to use only existing treatment programs under Proposition 36 and have no immediate plans to expand their roster of 200-plus contractors.

Worried Malibu neighbors "will not even know we are there," Prentiss said.

"I understand their concerns," he said. But, he added, "the state Legislature encourages" development of treatment centers.

"Drug and alcohol abuse is the No. 1 health problem in America," said Prentiss, a real estate broker and developer who is opening his first drug rehabilitation center. "This is a problem that touches everyone."

Prentiss said he got involved after helping his 27-year-old son, Pax, end a six-year heroin and cocaine addiction a year ago. Prentiss and his son plan to live on the property and run the center.

"The heart of our program is discovering the cause of the addiction," Prentiss said.

Clients will pay the hefty fee for at least two months of residential detoxification and rehabilitation, Prentiss said. Those facts haven't relieved neighbors' fears, who don't like the idea that a drug rehabilitation operation can open in the residential neighborhood.

"My definition of 'single-family home' is not six addicts or less," Diblosi said. "They should not be able to put a commercial enterprise in a noncommercial zone."

The judge rejected that argument, ruling that anti-commercial covenants on deeds of Meadow Court properties may not be enforced.

For Diblosi, the ruling means that "in the eyes of California, this is not a commercial enterprise" no matter how much money it makes.

Diblosi said he will no longer allow his children to ride their scooters on the street after the facility opens.

"They are using our beautiful city of Malibu to bring them in because it is more attractive than Iowa," said neighbor Lillian McCoy.

Homeowners also fear property values will decline.

"If I was someone with young children trying to buy a house here, I would be worried," said McCoy, whose house is on the market for almost $4 million.

Diblosi said it doesn't matter if the clients are rich or poor, their response to drug withdrawal will be the same.

"People being rehabilitated for drugs are dangerous people," Joseph McCoy said. "What happens if one of them gets out and goes berserk?"

The rehabilitation center is allowed under a 1979 law that prohibits cities from imposing separate zoning restrictions on such facilities. As a result, they can open for business without any local permits.

In determining the six-person limit, the law excludes program staff members and their families.

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