Camas officials ready to restrict rehab locations

City Council members support code amendment that limits zoning, creates 1,000-foot buffer near schools, parks

Camas city officials have signaled unanimous support for a code amendment that will drastically limit the siting of future residential drug and alcohol treatment facilities within city limits.

On Monday, May 2, the Camas City Council held a public hearing on a slate of annual code amendments meant to correct or clarify parts of the city’s municipal codes.

This year’s annual code amendment project includes a proposal that would prohibit future residential substance-abuse treatment facilities (RTFs) from operating within the city’s single-family residential areas and create a 1,000-foot “buffer zone” between new RTFs and private and public schools, public parks, public libraries and similar treatment facilities. The amendment also places zoning restrictions on sober living and transitional housing meant to assist people in their addiction recovery efforts (sober living homes) and help people experiencing homelessness transition to stable housing (transitional housing).

Despite more than a year of often heated community outcry — and a failed lawsuit against the city — over a private company’s plan to operate a 15-bed drug and alcohol detox and rehabilitation center near Dorothy Fox Elementary School in Camas’ Prune Hill neighborhood, the May 2 public hearing drew no comments from the public and no discussion amongst city council members.

City attorney: ‘Discriminatory housing practices involving those recovering from addiction is unlawful’

While opponents of the Discovery Recovery treatment and rehabilitation center were unsuccessully fighting that facility’s move to Prune Hill and challenging the RTF’s conditional-use permit at public hearings and in court throughout most of 2021, Camas Planning Commission members were engaging in conversations about how the city might avoid similar community conflict in the future.

On Jan. 19, 2022 — a little less than one year after Discover Recovery’s opponents formed their Dorothy Fox Safety Alliance — the Planning Commission unanimously agreed to pass a code amendment on to the Camas City Council that would have banned RTFs and sober living homes from locating within the city’s single- and multi-family residential, mixed-use, neighborhood commercial and downtown commercial zones, and operating within 1,000 feet of public and private schools, public parks, public libraries and similar facilities.

The Camas City Council was supposed to deliberate that code amendment proposal in early April, but sent the amendment back to the Planning Commission after the city’s attorneys said the Commission’s original proposal would likely violate state and federal laws, including the federal Fair Housing Act, which considers individuals recovering from drug or alcohol addiction a protected class under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

In a memorandum to city staff and officials, David Schultz, Camas’ assistant city attorney, said the Planning Commission’s proposed definition of RTFs, which would have also included sober living homes, was likely too broad.

“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 to city staff and officials in March. “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.”

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.

Planning commissioner: ‘We’ve all grappled with this’

The Camas Planning Commission held a second public hearing on the proposed slate of annual code amendments — including the amendment restricting RTFs and sober living homes — on April 19.

City planner Madeline Sutherland explained to the Commission why the city council had sent their first proposal back for reconsideration.

“The Fair Housing Act actually includes individuals recovering from drug or alcohol addiction …

Sober living homes house persons with handicaps and need to be allowed in all zones where hotels and single-family homes are permitted,” Sutherland said.

To avoid legal conflicts, city staff recommended that the Commission uncouple sober living homes from the proposed definition of a residential treatment facility.

Commission members deliberated a new code amendment proposal at the April 19 hearing that would define sober living homes as “a home-like environment that promotes healthy recovery from a substance use disorder and supports persons recovering from a substance use disorder through the use of peer recovery support … limited to no more than eight unrelated individuals” and define transitional housing as “a project that provides housing and supportive services to homeless persons or families for up to two years and that has as its purpose facilitating the movement of homeless persons and families into independent living.”

Under the proposal approved by planning commissioners on April 19 –and by city councilors this week — both sober living homes and transitional housing would be allowed outright in single-family and multi-family residential zones and have conditional uses within the city’s neighborhood commercial zones. Sober living homes also would be permitted in the city’s downtown commercial, community commercial and mixed-use zones.

The new code amendment proposal defines residential treatment facilities as “a facility meeting applicable state and federal standards that provides support services including, but not limited to, counseling, rehabilitation and medical supervision for the need of drug or alcohol treatment” (that) may function as a residence, day treatment facility, or a combination thereof (and) may be staffed by resident or nonresident staff and may include more than eight unrelated individuals.”

The code amendment approved by planning commission and city council members states that ” an RTF shall not be located within 1,000 feet of public and private schools, public parks, public libraries, other RTFs or similar uses” and would prohibit new RTFs from operating within the city’s single-family residential neighborhoods.

The new code amendment would ban RTFs from the city’s light industrial, business park and heavy industrial zones. RTFs would be permitted outright in the city’s downtown, community and regional commercial zones and would have conditional uses within Camas’ multi-family residential and neighborhood commercial zones, but would still be required to meet the 1,000 foot buffer rule.

Though they had already discussed the zoning limitations on RTFs at public meetings held in November and December 2021, and again at their January 2022 public hearing, at least one Camas Planning Commission member said during the April 19 hearing they had become concerned the code amendment was perhaps too restrictive.

“With all we’re trying to do, it doesn’t seem like there are many place left,” Commissioner Mahsa Eshghi said on April 19

Noting that the proposed zoning and 1,000-foot buffer seemed to leave few areas in the city that would allow for a residential treatment facility, Eshghi asked other commissioners and city staff if the planning commission was creating a situation that truly allowed for the siting of RTFs in Camas. “Is it really doable?” Eshghi asked.

Camas’ planning manager, Robert Maul, responded that RTFs would still be allowed to apply for a conditional-use permit in multi-family zones, and told the planning commissioners they could still reconsider the 1,000-foot buffer zone.

According to Sutherland, Camas would be one of just three Washington jurisdictions to create a “buffer zone” between RTFs and public facilities like schools, parks and libraries.

“Residential treatment facility is a little more commercial in nature than a sober living home,” Sutherland told city councilors on Monday. “That’s why we can regulate it a little more.”

In the course of researching buffer zones around RTFs in Washington, Sutherland said city staff had discovered two jurisdictions that have similar limitations: Ferndale, north of Bellingham, restricts RTFs from operating within 1,000 feet of parks, schools and other facilities; and Clark County has a 350-foot buffer zone, Sutherland said.

In the end, the planning commissioners decided to stick with the 1,000-foot buffer zone and updated zoning restrictions for RTFs.

“There is a moral and ethical weightiness (to this issue) that doesn’t happen in planning commission meetings,” Camas Planning Commission member Joe Walsh said during the April 19 public hearing. “We’ve all grappled with this. … I would be shocked if any of my fellow commissioners have not known someone who’s battled addiction issues. … (We try to be) empathetic while also being rational.”

Commissioner Geoerl Niles said he felt the commission had had a “great process.”

“I don’t think … we’ve rushed this,” Niles said. “It feels like it’s been a great process. I actually feel more comfortable knowing we’re looking at every aspect of this.”

Walsh added that planning commissioners had been open to reconsidering the code amendment after hearing from the city’s attorneys that their first recommendation to city council would likely violate federal and state laws.

“We are discussing this again because our last recommendation missed the mark a bit. I want to make it clear from my perspective, and from what I’ve heard from my fellow commissioners, that was unintentional. We’re not attorneys. We rely on staff to vet our recommendations,” Walsh said.

“It has never been my intention to discriminate against those with substance abuse issues,” Walsh added. “Some of the fears expressed by some of my neighbors online have stigmatized people and I don’t agree with (that). It is our duty to regulate these types of things, and I think that is what we’ve done here.”

The Council is expected to formalize their support of the code amendment related to RTFs and sober living homes later this month.