Despite threats of lawsuits from operators of sober-living homes, Newport Beach late Tuesday enacted some of the state's tightest restrictions on the facilities.
The unanimous City Council vote, which came after nearly two hours of public comment and discussion, was only a prelude to what is expected to be a drawn-out court battle over the homes, which by the city's count number 76, although critics say there are many more.
And the legal challenges aren't coming only from the operators: Hours before the ordinance was passed, a citizens group filed a $250-million lawsuit against Newport Beach, the City Council and 11 companies that provide sober-living homes, alleging that they have not done enough to stop the proliferation of the facilities.
The dispute probably will serve as a test case for cities throughout the state, many of which have been frustrated by federal and state limits on their ability to regulate group homes.
Residents of coastal communities say they struggle with the number of homes because operators can charge a premium to recovering addicts who want to be near the beach.
According to the lawsuit filed by Concerned Citizens of Newport Beach, the group that had pushed for the ordinance, the city violated residents' due process by failing to "enact effective regulations to address" the negative effects of too many sober-living homes in their neighborhoods.
According to the 41-page suit, those problems include smoking in public, loitering, increased traffic and parking shortages. The suit also contends that sober-living facility operators engaged in unfair business practices by circumventing state licensing laws and that their facilities have caused a public nuisance.
Concerned Citizens has spent more than $150,000 in legal fees in pushing for an ordinance that would have more teeth than the one the council passed, said Denys Oberman, one of the group's leaders.
Newport's largest sober-living housing provider, Sober Living by the Sea -- which under the ordinance would have to apply for city permits to continue operating dozens of its homes -- also plans to sue the city.
The firm alleges that the ordinance is illegal and discriminatory, said John Peloquin, a vice president of CRC Health Group, Sober Living by the Sea's parent company.
"From where I'm sitting, I've got a city that's trying to put us out of business, plain and simple," Peloquin said.
Recovering substance abusers are considered disabled under fair employment and housing laws, according to the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs.
Jim Markman, a private attorney hired by Newport Beach to craft and implement the group home ordinance, said he was disappointed that the city would be mired in lawsuits as it tried to move forward with the new regulations.
The ordinance, he said, went as far as it could without blatantly violating laws that protect groups such as recovering substance abusers from discrimination.
"This whole thing is about balancing the rights of handicapped people under fair housing laws with the rights of people to have the residential character of their neighborhoods maintained," Markman said.
In comments before the vote, Michael Henn, the Newport Beach councilman whose Balboa Peninsula district contains the bulk most of the city's recovery homes, called the ordinance a "very substantive attack on this issue."
The ordinance takes effect Feb. 21 and gives group home operators 90 days to apply for permits to continue operating. The city will hire independent hearing officers, who will start reviewing the applications this summer.