Camas’ push to limit drug rehabs, sober living homes risks violating federal laws

City attorney: 'Discriminatory housing practices involving those recovering from addiction is unlawful'; City Council sends language back to Planning Commission for further review

A proposal to severely restrict the siting of drug and alcohol treatment centers — as well as “sober living” homes — within Camas’ city limits stalled this week after Camas City Council members discovered elements of the proposed city code amendments could violate state and federal laws.

“‘Disability’ under the Fair Housing Act has been interpreted as including individuals recovering from drug or alchohol addiction and as such discriminatory housing practices involving those recovering from addiction is unlawful,” David Schultz, Camas’ assistant city attorney, wrote to the city’s interim community development director, Robert Maul, on March 25. “The City … should be mindful of allowing reasonable accommodation to allow those individuals with disabilities to reside in the community of their choice with the minimal restrictions required by law.”

The Camas Planning Commission held a public hearing on the issue on Jan. 19, and unanimously agreed to send proposed code amendments restricting drug and alcohol treatment facilities and sober living homes from siting within many areas of Camas, including the city’s single- and multi-family residential zones, and from operating within 1,000 feet of schools, parks and libraries.

The Planning Commission then passed the issue on to the Camas City Council.

During the Council’s workshop on Monday, April 4, city planner Madeline Sutherland explained that elements of the code amendments could “create issues with the Fair Housing Act” and advised council members to send the proposed code amendments back to the Planning Commission for further discussions.

Schultz, the assistant city attorney, agreed the matter should be sent back to the Planning Commission and said his office had received input from the Municipal Research and Services Center and the Department of Commerce warning the city risked violating the federal Fair Housing Act “and other applicable statutes” if it included sober living homes or transitional homes in its limitations on drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers.

Schultz also pointed out that the state considers substance abuse treatment and recovery centers to be “essential public facilities” and does not allow cities to prohibit these types of facilities outright.

The code amendments approved by the Planning Commission in January would not have totally banned substance abuse facilities but would have limited such facilities’ ability to operate inside Camas city limits — banning drug and alcohol treatment centers as well as sober living homes in the city’s residential areas, mixed-use zones and some commercial zones; requiring a conditional-use permit in other zones, including the city’s community and regional commercial, business park, light industrial/business park, light industrial and heavy industrial zones; and establishing a 1,000-foot buffer near schools, parks, libraries and similar facilities.

In his memorandum, Schultz said parts of the Commission’s proposed code amendments could be unlawful.

“Because ‘disability’ under the Fair Housing Act has been interpreted as including individuals recovering from drug or alcohol addictions, discriminatory housing practices involving those recovering from addiction would be unlawful,” Schultz wrote. “Accordingly, the City’s definition may be too broad, and as a result violate the legal standards.”

Planning Commission added ‘sober living homes’ to code changes at request of Dorothy Fox Safety Alliance lawyer

The city’s planning commissioners took up the issue in the fall of 2021. Maul said then that city officials had asked city staff to “look at language for drug and alcohol detox facilities” after dozens of community members railed against Discover Recovery, a private drug and alcohol facility opening in a former bed-and-breakfast turned assisted-living center in Camas’ mostly residential Prune Hill neighborhood, within close proximity of an elementary school, church and city park.

Some of the planning commissioners seemed to agree with Camas residents who have contended, without proof, that patients seeking treatment at such drug and alcohol recovery centers pose a danger to children in the nearby neighborhood.

“We have the ability to look at something that’s come to light … we’re dealing with a subject people have been very voiceful and want to provide in our city, but not on the doorsteps of where it could be dangerous. We have to take that very carefully,” Camas Planning Commissioner Geoerl Niles, a pastor and executive director of Ascend International Ministries, said during the commission’s November 2021 meeting.

During the Planning Commission’s Jan. 19 public hearing, Camas attorney Brian Lewallen, one of two lawyers who represented the Dorothy Fox Safety Alliance in its fight against the 15-bed Discover Recovery drug and alcohol treatment center, urged planning commissioners to change the wording in its proposed code amendment from “substance abuse treatment centers” to “residential treatment facilities” and to include sober living homes and transitional homes for people in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse to its proposed code changes.

“I would encourage the commission to consider putting (sober living homes) in the definition,” Lewallen said. “That is a use that will be coming our way … sober living homes and transitional housing: consider putting those in to make sure they’re outside the 1,000-foot buffer.”

Niles agreed with Lewallen’s recommendations and, during the Jan. 19 public hearing, suggested asking city staff to research “all the definitions — sober living, transitional housing and other — to cover all the bases” to ensure all of these types of facilities connected to drug and alcohol recovery were banned from operating within 1,000 feet of the city’s schools and parks.

“Transitional housing is becoming more and more prevalent in our society,” Niles said on Jan. 19. “We don’t want to deal with this in a year when we find it isn’t (included in the city code prohibiting such facilities from operating near schools and parks).”

Asked by The Post-Record in January if the code amendments approved by the Planning Commission might violate federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act, which protect people with disabilities, Maul said city staff would review the Planning Commission’s proposed code amendments to ensure they would not violate state or federal laws.

“Staff’s role is to make sure any proposed changes are compliant with state and federal regulations,” Maul told The Post-Record in a Feb. 4 email. “Accordingly, we then provide recommendations to be considered by the City Council. Staff would never knowingly advocate for anything that would be discriminatory or illegal.”

In his March 25 memorandum, Schultz includes proposed changes to the code amendments that would limit the number of people living in a sober living home to “no more than eight unrelated individuals,” but would not lump sober living homes in with drug and alcohol residential treatment facilities and, therefore, would not prohibit sober living homes from operating within the city’s residential zones or near schools, parks and libraries.

Updates to the code amendments proposed in the city attorney’s memorandum would still prohibit residential treatment centers — defined as facilities that include more than eight unrelated individuals and “provide support services including, but not limited to, counseling, rehabilitation and medical supervision for the need of drug or alcohol treatment” — from locating in Camas’ single-family residential zones and within 1,000 feet of public and private schools, public parks, public libraries and near similar centers, but would allow these facilities to operate with a conditional-use permit in the city’s multi-family residential zones.

“As addressed in the update report, reasonable questions include whether the number of ‘residential treatment facility’ residents should be capped, whether the City should seek to limit clustering of residential treatment facilities and whether the City should require that ‘recovery residences’ be properly licensed,” Schultz stated in his memorandum to Maul. “The Fair Housing Amendment Act of 1988 requires reasonable accommodation to enable people with disabilities to live in the community of their choice. Consistent with the reasonable accommodation requirement, the City may consider addressing the size and capping the number of residents at both an SATF (substance abuse treatment facility) and (sober living home).”

On Monday, city council members unanimously agreed to send the proposed code amendments back to the planning commissioners for more discussion and possible revisions.

More from The Post-Record regarding Camas’ history with drug and alcohol recovery facilities: