The Rich vs. the Addicts

Newports Balboa Peninsula has become the place to go when youve got no place else to go. Longtime residents say theyre fighting for their way of life. Addicts struggling to get clean say theyre fighting for their lives

Photos by James BunoanThe "convicts" and "liars" don'tagree on much, but they seem to agree on this: the tension started early in 2003. That's when Narconon opened a second rehabilitation house for recovering substance abusers behind the oceanfront rehab house it already operated at 18th Street on the Balboa Peninsula.

Narconon—that's Narcotics Anonymous, a 12-step program like AA—had operated the house for several years, and there were at least five other recovery houses in the area, on 10th, 12th, 15th and 45th streets. It was the prospect of one more house that pushed Linda Orozco over the edge.

"That's when we went nuts," said Orozco, a 20-year peninsula resident who lives three doors from the 18th Street recovery house. "There were now as many as 62 people using the 32-bed triplex for meals, laundry and classes."

Orozco contacted Newport Beach Mayor Tom Ridgeway to ask if the city could stop the proliferation of recovery houses and the myriad problems they brought with them: the overcrowding, foul language, pounding basketballs and, yes, tuba music that kept her up at night.

It wasn't long before Orozco, a professor of educational leadership at Cal State Fullerton, was addressing the entire Newport Beach City Council, joined by like-minded residents from 10th, 12th, 15th and 45th streets. They asked the city to more closely regulate the area's recovery facilities, which they say numbers close to 40. The longtime residents wanted to make it clear they had nothing against the people who ran the houses or their clients, they said, just that the people who ran the recovery houses were duplicitous and their clients were "transients" and "convicts" who stole from them.

That's when the people who ran the houses and their clients started showing up at the council meetings. They claimed they were being scapegoated.

"There has been a campaign of discrimination from the neighbors, with tactics and misinformation swaying people," said Gerry Marshall, the president of Narconon in Southern California, referring to not only things said but also things videotaped, specifically by Linda Orozco. "We try to be good, responsible neighbors, but it's the perception of the neighbors. If you don't know somebody, you can make up things and be scared."

Others have pointed out the rehab houses' residents are far more responsible neighbors than the weekly-rental frat boys who show up, kegs in arms.

"Weekly renters don't worry about the neighbors," said Mike Newman, a 40-year Newport resident and partner in Newport Coast Recovery, which opened the Blue House, a facility for men located at 1216 W. Balboa. "We don't bring kegs in and have parties every weekend. We are such good neighbors; we clean in front of the whole block once a week. Our residents have no cars and cannot smoke out front."

They've called their complaining neighbors "uneducated to what we do," their charges "blatant lies."

As you would expect in a community where oceanfront homes fetch $2 million to $3 million, lawyers have been retained and threats made. City officials have become involved . . . kinda. Newport Beach hired attorney Jeff Goldfarb, an expert in helping cities deal with rehab houses, to help assuage the situation. But his efforts led only to more anger and multiple complaints by multiple lawyers.

"This has become increasingly more difficult," Goldfarb said.

Now, as we near the beginning of 2005, nothing has changed, which is to say it's only gotten worse. Each side claims the other has ruined the peace and tranquility of the 2.5-mile stretch of sand. Private residents say they're fighting for their way of life. Rehab residents say they are fighting for their lives.

"Something has to be done," says the neighbor.

"Our battle is spiritual," says the recovery resident.

"People don't realize that life atthe beach is different," says Jane Hamlin, who has lived on the peninsula for more than 20 years. "It's so quiet people can hear the waves, the seagulls. Parents sit out on the patio, sipping coffee before the kids are up. But we also live very close to one another. Renters who are parents and have kids have to tell them to clam up and make them realize they have to be considerate of the neighbors. We all wave or smile good morning to one another. We don't even scrape a chair on the cement."

By contrast, she says, "on the Narconon balcony, two patients will be talking loudly, saying, 'Look at that f-ing seagull! Look at that f-ing wave," she says. "The language is very offensive, especially at the Jacuzzi, where the men discuss what they would like to do to certain females. Even the staff is profane. I hear the staff reading a patient up one side and down the other with graphic language."

For as long as Hamlin can remember, the three-story beige house next to her oceanfront home has served as a rehabilitation facility for people with addictions to food, alcohol, cocaine, heroin and other drugs. But she says the situation got suddenly, significantly worse last year, when Narconon rented a second house across the alley. Though Hamlin's home is just steps from the ocean, she says she doesn't dare open the windows to enjoy the ocean breeze; the last time she did, she says, her house reeked of cigarette smoke for days. She says she has no problem with recovery facilities, just the number of them.

Though there are six licensed facilities, residents live in numerous "satellite" facilities located nearby. These smaller residences house fewer than six occupants, which means they don't require licensing; Orozco, Hamlin and others claim the people residing in these smaller houses often wind up hanging out at the bigger recovery facilities. Add in these smaller facilities, they say, and there are more than 40 recovery facilities of some kind in an area that simply can't handle the volume.

"Something has to be done," says Hamlin, noting the constant stream of orange peels, cigarettes and pizza crusts that get thrown out of the windows and lie all over the street. "Narconon says they are a family." If they are a family, she says, they need to act like one. "They need to be considerate to their neighbors. Because of the high turnover, there are always new people, and socialization is the last thing to be taught."

Narconon's Gerry Marshall is a former student and graduate of the program. He says his house has always been a good neighbor. To prove that, Narconon recently voluntarily ceased their lease on the back house to decrease the neighborhood population. He is aware that people who use drugs aren't perfect people and that many of them smoke, but he notes that cigarettes are "better than crack pipes."

Beach areas such as Newport Beachand Malibu have long been popular with private recovery facilities. They offer physical beauty, activities and the spiritual tether that is the ocean. The saying goes that when clients are paying $20,000 for a 90-day stay, "the beach sells better than Riverside." Marshall is quick to point out that many of their clients come from Newport Beach itself. In fact, this summer, during City Council meetings, recovery-house proponents asked city officials to relax restrictions on houses to allow more centers to open up for more clients—noting that Newport Beach ranks third highest in the state for DUI arrests.

"I had an awesome family. My father was a doctor. I had a sports car. I went to graduate school. I'm also a heroin addict from a drug program in Newport Beach," said Ericka Falk at a City Council meeting. "I think we need more facilities for the area."

The complaints from the neighbors are no surprise to Marshall. He says he's tried to accommodate them: restricting smokers to a single balcony and repairing an industrial-strength dryer that neighbors complained made too much noise. Blue House's Newman says that when neighbors complained about noise, he immediately resolved the situation by turning off the music at 9 p.m. instead of 10. When an apartment complex located next to the Blue House was sold, Newman says he talked with the new owner about their concerns and pointed out that his clients are better behaved than weekly renters.

"We've corrected everything, then they come up with more things," says Marshall, who notes that neither the 18th Street house nor the back unit has ever been in violation of the law. "The house has had two surprise state inspections and passed all the items, including occupancy, and is within the state limit for the number of beds in the facility."

Many in the recovery houses believe the surprise inspections were the work of their neighbors. They've complained about being videotaped, specifically by Orozco, who has been tenacious about in keeping the issue alive through e-mails and phone calls to City Hall, as well as encouraging her neighbors to do likewise.

Orozco admits she videotaped the houses—at a recent planning-commission meeting, she distributed her videotapes from a large white satchel—but says she isn't invading anyone's privacy, just documenting the heavy foot and vehicle traffic, along with the aforementioned noisy dryer.

The recovery facilities didn't see it that way, which is why Orozco says she was threatened with a lawsuit if she didn't stop.

Many of the neighbors say they are the ones being spied on. They believe recovery residents case their homes and wait for opportunities to steal.

"They watch us," said one resident who didn't want her name used. She grows conspiratorial when I ask what she means. "That's how they knew the elderly lady down the street was on a walk. They broke into her house and threw her safe out the second-floor window."

Since a recent rash of robberies along the 12th Street area near the Blue House, a drug-and-alcohol-recovery center for men, a neighbor says the casual, trusting, life-at-the-beach vibe is gone. "We no longer leave our front doors unlocked, even just to go on the beach or run an errand. Bikes, anything left outside: everything is stolen."

Newman, um, doesn't agree.

"What neighbors say are blatant lies," he said. "Our clients have no reason to steal. We provide them with bikes, wet suits and computers, and we take their IDs when they arrive here."

Newport Police Sergeant Steve Shulman says there were eight service calls directly for the Blue House location and 43 at Narconon's 1810 W. Oceanfront home in 2003.

"The calls could have been from neighbors or from the house," he says. "But to have more than a few calls at an address per year, there is usually an ongoing type of problem, such as noise, traffic or a problem with a person."

Still, Shulman points out that while there was an increase in thefts in those areas, there was an increase citywide. One individual was arrested in connection with a string of robberies but was not a recovery house resident.

So where are Newport Beach officials in all this?

Well, the recovery houses believe the City Council is far too sympathetic to longtime residents, while longtime residents believe the city is far too receptive to the rehab houses because the facilities are (one said) "cash cows" that produce huge tax revenues for the city.

How to regulate the growth or restriction of the recovery houses is complicated since people recovering from addictions are classified as handicapped and, therefore, are protected under the Fair Housing Act Amendments of 1988.

Through Goldfarb, Newport Beach has turned out proposals to address the occupancy of the houses—whether they are to be classified as businesses or residential. But the city continues to struggle with deciding how to treat seven or more unrelated people living in the same house without interfering with the strict state and federal anti-discrimination laws.

Mostly, it has played with language. A house is now called a "campus" while "planning commission" has replaced "planning director" and "reasonable accommodation" has been changed to "federal exception permit." Invariably, each proposal elicits a rash of angry e-mails and phone calls. After one proposal, Goldfarb was contacted by three lawyers for residents who complained the city is just dancing around the issue.

"I don't feel this issue is going away," says a neighbor. "The city has just decided to ignore it."

Newman thinks all of this comes down to money, that the issue has grown as property values have skyrocketed.

"If I had a $3 million home, I would have a concern if I didn't understand," he said. "It's very easy to look for a scapegoat—us."

But a local realtor who requested anonymity says the houses have had "minimal impact" on home values. He recently sold a duplex across the alley from the 18th Street Narconon house; the new owner will use the duplex as a rental and therefore isn't too anxious about quality-of-life issues

"The people next door are impacted," he said. "Not down the street."

Which is something residents on 11th Street might want to keep in mind. In September, a six-unit apartment complex there sold to a recovery group for $2.7 million. Neighbors say the owner received "well more than the asking price."

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