town hall

The Town Council spent three hours of its regular meeting May 3 hammering out details, but finally got an ordinance regulating community residences and sober living homes to a vote where it passed 6-1.

Councilman Mike Scharnow was the dissenting vote, saying he believes the occupancy limits in the ordinance are too restrictive.

While much of the audience in attendance continued to urge the council to pass the ordinance as presented by the Planning and Zoning Commission recommendation, this was clearly a situation where no one was going to walk away completely happy with the result.

The key issues that required give and take included the spacing between community living residences. The council settled on 1,380 feet (quarter mile) as opposed to the half mile proposed by the commission. The measure is from property line to property line.

The ordinance calls for occupancy limits of eight residents including staff for a family community residence, one where a resident spends up to a year or more. This would include assisted living for elderly or disabled. For transitional homes where a typical resident is there less than a year (usually 30-90 days), which would include sober living facilities, the ordinance allows six residents including any staff that would reside there.

A proposed insurance requirement setting a minimum liability amount was removed. It was noted that some cities that had included an insurance requirement for similar facilities had removed them after State Legislature action. Town Attorney Aaron Arnson told the council the Town would not have the authority to require minimum insurance. Some council members suggested the Town ask the legislature to look at insurance requirements for sober living facilities.

The council removed a proposal to allow for Code Enforcement to do unannounced inspections. Instead, it was suggested the Town again reach out to the state for a possible agreement to allow Town staff to conduct inspections on behalf of the state. It was stated previously that the state was short-staffed for covering the number of community living residences across the state. Councilman David Spelich said he discussed the feasibility of such a partnership with State Representative John Kavanagh, who believed that option might be available to the Town.

One other major item in the ordinance had the council address a waiver process for applicants to request reasonable accommodation to be noncompliant with the rules. The type of request most often talked about during the ordinance discussion was a request to have more residents. The applicant would need to request to a committee consisting of the Development Services Director, Board of Adjustment chairman or a designee and the Planning and Zoning chairman or designee. The applicant would need to provide specific and documented reasons for the request. A decision by this committee could not be appealed to the council. If the applicant disagreed with the decision, it would require a judicial remedy.

Public comment

The comments from the public at the meeting were similar to those previously in this discussion by the council. They continued to urge the council to adopt the Planning and Zoning Commission recommendations as written.

Marianne and Ron Sampson spoke to the council noting they fell in love with Fountain Hills years ago and just returned here in the past year or so to retire. They found a home they love, but discovered what is apparently a sober living facility next door.

“It feels so different,” Marianne Sampson said. “I’m not totally at ease in my home. There is a revolving door of men watching my every move.”

Ron Sampson said vans arrive several times a day and he is not comfortable with it.

“This is a commercial for- profit business operating in a residential neighborhood,” he said. “It is critically important that you pass these restrictions.”

Larry Meyers said the businesses are profiteering and boosting their bottom line at the expense of Fountain Hills residents. He said he was told by a state official that there are no facilities in Fountain Hills that would be defined as sober living. He said they are residential detox facilities (which would be a zoning violation).

“I don’t see a need for the Town to allow them to proliferate,” Meyers said.

Natalie Marston Salem, the owner of Fountain Hills Recovery, explained their operations in the community. She said they first started serving Fountain Hills in 2016 and they are now the subject of a lot of rumors and gossip. Salem said they operate two facilities in Fountain Hills that are licensed by the State of Arizona and have other certifications.

Marston-Salem said they provide the highest standard of care; they do not provide detoxification services at the Fountain Hills homes. She said they have well-trained staff and have had no identifiable criminal activity, police actions or code enforcement action.

Andy Bennett, who is a consultant for sober living and detox facilities, said he was speaking on behalf of those seeking treatment. He acknowledged there are bad actors in the industry (comments not specific to Fountain Hills).

Bennett said he believes the Town is trying to be as restrictive as possible, and the regulations are a solution in search of a problem.

The discussion regarding the detox and sober living regulations began more than a year ago when word got around that a realtor had inquired of the Town about zoning regulations for detox facilities. Staff and the council asked Planning and Zoning to begin a proactive discussion about existing and possible new regulations.

It was decided to separate the requirements for sober living residences and detox facilities. Discussions for proposed detox regulations are just beginning with Planning and Zoning.