Proliferation Of Drug Recovery Homes Near Arrowhead Raises Hackles

(May 31)Residents in the San Bernardino Mountains are growing increasingly anxious over the recent proliferation of residential facilities intended to house recovering drug and alcohol addicts in their community, accompanied by drug and alcohol treatment centers catering to the residential facilities’ clientele.
At issue is the residents’ demand that the county, which normally exercises land use authority in the county’s unincorporated areas, undertake some form of regulatory action to rein in what they perceive as a growing nuisance and activity  incompatible with the sedate rural mountain ambience. County officials’ insist that state law pertaining to such rehabilitation residences eclipses local ordinances and planning authority. By meeting a minimum set of standards which include limitations on the number of occupants per unit, county officials maintain, the proprietors of the homes are free to maintain and operate those facilities without interference. After initiating a revamping of the permitting process for such operations, the county has suspended that effort.
In response, mountain community members suggest that county officials are underestimating the limits of their regulatory authority and are shying away from applying other forms of their authority such as policing, code enforcement and prosecutorial powers to prevent behavior detrimental to the community.
Indeed, the county’s own zoning codes show what is now the centerpiece of the mountain community’s rehabilitation operations is a “use not allowed.”
Ground zero in the growing controversy is a company – Above It All Treatment Centers – and the company’s owner, Kory Avarell. More than four years ago, in seeming anticipation of California legislation – Assembly Bills 109 and 117, which cycled what were defined as low-level inmates out of state prisons into county facilities and had the secondary effect of prompting the release of drug offenders into the community, in many cases into state-licensed halfway houses or treatment centers – Avarell opened nine six bed residential facilities for recovering drug addicts and alcoholics in the San Bernardino Mountains.  Six of those were in Lake Arrowhead, two in Crestline and one in Twin Peaks.
In making his application for the facilities, Avarell adroitly did not refer to them as “treatment centers, treatment homes or treatment facilities,” but rather as “sober living homes.”  Whereas a treatment facility requires a state license, a sober living home with fewer than seven residents does not need a license.
Avarell began advertising the residential services he offered, including a drug and alcohol rehabilitation strategy in a sober living environment, at a national level. The spaces he offered were quickly filled.
In relatively short order, nearby residents became alarmed at the activity and behavior of some of those living in the sober living homes. In time, complaints would manifest. Inquiries were made, but county officials claimed they had no rubric under which to take action against the homes.
Complaints, however, persisted. A common element in such complaints was that the homes were incompatible with nearby residential uses.
In what he would maintain was a compromise intended to ameliorate the concerns of those objecting to the homes, Avarell last fall announced his willingness to close down homes on West Shore Road, Alder Lane, Montreal Drive in Lake Arrowhead and another in Crestline on Kissing Rock Road.  To offset those closures, in December he acquired the 17-unit Storybook Inn hotel in Skyforest, agreeing to pay its owner,  Rob Perrin, the full list price of $1.2 million, conditional upon being able to move the residents that had been displaced from the Lake Arrowhead and Crestline sober living homes into Storybook immediately.
While that transference may have seemed to be a positive development for the residents on West Shore Road, Alder Lane and Montreal Drive in Lake Arrowhead and those on Kissing Rock Road in Crestline, it proved something of a coup for Avarell, who for more than a year had been operating a rehabilitation clinic within short walking distance of the Storybook Inn in a building at the corner of Highway 18 at Kuffel Canyon Road in Skyforest. Skyforest lies just one mile southeast of Lake Arrowhead on Highway 18.
In the intervening months, the influx of recovering addicts into the commercial district has exacerbated an already deteriorating situation. As early as 2011, a nearby businessman, Dr. Carl Melville,  a chiropractor whose office was located within the same building as the rehabilitation clinic Avarell has been operating at the Kuffel Canyon Road/Highway 18 intersection, lodged a complaint with San Bernardino County Supervisor Janice Rutherford, referencing sexual activity in a nearby public restroom involving  the clinic’s patients, sexually explicit graffiti, twenty-to-thirty patients of the rehab clinic lining up in front of the clinic with urine cups, physical fights between the clinic’s clientele, second hand cigarette smoke, displays of public nudity and raucous behavior and the harassment of his patients.
Melville further cited the incompatibility of a marijuana clinic next to the rehab clinic and said he had witnessed patients smoking marijuana in front of his office, which is proximate to a school bus stop. He said that the number of his own patients had decreased as a result of the proximity of the drug recovery clinic to his business.
On April 4 of this year, the county planning commission took up the subject of licensed and unlicensed residential care facilities, including sober living and drug and alcohol treatment facilities, ultimately voting unanimously to recommend that the county implement an amendment to the county development code related to such homes and facilities.
The newly drafted regulations recommended by the planning commission would not impact upon individual homes housing six or fewer people, which are permitted to exist in residential neighborhoods containing single family homes. The major changes envisioned by the planning commission in its non-binding recommendation to the board of supervisors extend to larger facilities accommodating seven people or more, defining them as incompatible with single-family residential neighborhoods and require that they be located within areas zoned for multiple family residential uses, i.e., apartments, dormitories and hotels. While noting that “state licensed alcohol/drug treatment homes with six or fewer residents are considered a permitted residential use under state law, and the county must allow this type of facility in a single-family residential district,” the planning commission did provide for a regulation that larger such facilities be limited as to location and be subject to a stringent permitting process. At the same time, the commission called for the county to be empowered to undertake a permitting process for the smaller – six occupants or fewer – treatment homes that allows them to be located in single-family residential areas, while subjecting them to “reasonable” limitations such as requiring that they not be clustered or concentrated in a single area, be located at least 300 feet from one another, one to a block, so that “group home uses do not become the dominant residential use in a neighborhood.”
The planning commission’s action would have little or no impact on the Above It All Treatment Center’s operations, which adhere to the proposed new county standards in nearly all particulars and would be exempt, i.e., grandfathered in, as a use that pre-existed the new regulations.
Avarell this week spoke with the Sentinel about the controversy his operation has generated. He maintained that much of the protest against Above It All was wrongfully directed and that his operation was an ordered and well-run one.
He said the residential facilities are sedate and unobtrusive.
“Out of all the houses we have, I am trying to think of anywhere the actual neighbors complain,” he said. “Those that drive by do complain but that is the 10 percent that complain about everything. One of our homes, the houses on both sides burned down, so there is no one to complain. At another, the houses across the street are burned down.  At another house, we have new neighbors who love us. At one of the other houses, the neighbors have never complained. We have been around for over four years. Four years ago, one of the neighbors who was selling his house had trouble doing that because we were next door. That was the first and only time we’ve had an issue with an actual neighbor. Before that and since then we have operated without anyone knowing we are here because we are so quiet.”
Avarell addressed Melville’s litany of complaints, saying there was tension between Melville and himself because his treatment clinic had ended up displacing the chiropractic business.
“He was back due about nine months on his rent and the landlord let him go on that and we offered to move into his space and pay for it,” Avarell said. “He got angry, because we kicked him out, so to speak. If it had not been for us, the landlord probably would have let him stay on.”
Avarell did acknowledge that when both businesses were present, “We congregated there.” That conflict is no longer an issue, Avarell said. “He has been gone about a year.”
Averall said the nearby medical marijuana clinic is likewise old news. “Right next door we had a marijuana clinic,” he said. “It’s been gone for about eight months.” He suggested that bothersome activity previously cited at that location was attributable to the marijuana clinic rather than Above It All’s clients.
It is true that there is a school bus stop proximate to his operation, Avarell said. He said Above It All had been sensitive to concerns about that.
“We have standardized our sessions so that our clients are not outside when those two drop offs and pick- ups are scheduled,” he said.
The treatment clinic is located in a commercial district, Avarell said, and as such is compatible with its surroundings.
“Closest to us is a commercial office and post office, a restaurant, and Charter Cable, which are all commercial,” he said. “Across the street is all commercial. There is a pizza place.”
Within relatively close proximity, Avarell conceded, “There is one house that is zoned neighborhood commercial, which includes a cabinet shop. Those people bought that fully knowing that we were here  and are now complaining about it. Our center was disclosed to them when they came in here in about October. I actually talked to them about it. I think they are bothered now by the [cigarette] smoke that blows up toward them. We have a designated smoking area in a fire cleared area approved by the fire marshal. They are complaining about that but we are complying with what the law says and the fire marshal’s directive by having our smoking area in the only place it is permitted.”
To the Sentinel, Averall expressed surprise at reports of untoward behavior by Above It All’s clients in the proximity of the treatment center and the various residences.
“No one has brought that up to me,” he said. “If that had been brought to our attention, we would have dealt with it.”
In a promotional video for Above It All, Avarell indicated that those being treated may  be temporarily out of sorts.
“When people  get here, especially during that first week, it is hard for them, because they want to run,” Avarell said. “They don’t want this. They are giving up control. That’s a big thing. Everyone wants control and they are completely having to give that up. They are not feeling well because they are detoxing and they want to go. Of course it is our job to make sure that they stay if it is at all possible, but we know what that person is going to be like. It’s just ten days, or whatever. We know what’s going to happen.”
Nevertheless, Avarell insisted to the Sentinel, those undergoing treatment at Above It All “are very well supervised 24 hours a day.” Avarell said Above It All, which employs 80, averages roughly 40 clients at a time moving through a treatment period that lasts 30 days.  That clientele fluctuates, he said, moving to as high as 65 and down to 25 from time to time.
Averall said negative publicity about Above It All has intensified in recent weeks and that much or all of it is based on falsehoods.
“I heard just a few days ago someone accused us of having sexual predators in here,” he said. “That is not true. There was a posting on [the internet reviewing site] Yelp saying that we were engaging in unethical treatment of our clients and violating their privacy. The only one violating their privacy was the one who came in here taking pictures and then making the accusations.”
Avarell said Above It All is in compliance with all zoning codes.
“It is a state law, not a county ordinance and we do comply with state law, which is that we have six or fewer residents in our homes,” he said.
Those opposed to Above It All are misinformed and misdirected, Avarell said.
“We serve a good purpose,” he said. “We’ve treated over 120 people over the last two years absolutely free, at our cost, no cost to them. Almost 100 percent of those were local people. You will never find drugs in our house. The people here want to be here. None are court-mandated. Most have insurance. For the most part they have pretty good jobs.  We employ 80 people. What other industry up here [in the San Bernardino Mountains] provides that number of jobs? We are an important part of the local economy. I was born here and I care about my community.”
Those who believe Above It All and other drug and alcohol treatment facilities and sober living homes can be shut down are wrong, Avarell said.
“No one is going to be able to change the laws,” he said. “Newport Beach spent $2.5 million to get treatment houses out of that city and lost in court and then went to the higher courts and lost there. As long as you are obeying the law, you just can’t be removed. It is never going to change. No one is going to force us out because we are 100 percent legal. The law is on our side and the laws will not be changed. The courts have proved that through lawsuits in other cities and counties.”
The draft revised ordinance to amend the county code with regard to residential care facilities was scheduled to come before the board of supervisors on June 18. Mountain residents had asked county staff to harden elements of the county’s existing code and reinforce provisions prohibiting a rehabilitation center from being located in both neighborhood commercial and residential zones.  Their advocacy transformed into consternation, however, when they learned that the draft of the ordinance would actually expand the permitted locations of sober living homes from one to 12 zones. After meetings with representatives of Supervisor Janice Rutherford and Assemblyman Tim Donnelly did not result in any substantial change to the draft, a rising level of dissatisfaction with the county’s intention with regard to the code amendments was expressed. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that the ordinance had been taken off calendar for the June 18 meeting. It remains on hold.

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