New rules for sober homes get first approval in Boynton Beach

Updated June 22, 2017
657 Riviera Drive in Boynton Beach, Fla. Photographed on Thursday, March 31, 2016. (Thomas Cordy / The Palm Beach Post)

With just one more vote from the city’s officials, business owners that plan to open sober homes in Boynton Beach will have to get them certified with the local nonprofit Florida Association of Recovery Residences.

The organization already regulates sober homes, but under a voluntary program, with the state.

Read: What two south county cities are doing to regulate sober homes

That’s one of the new rules city staff wrote over the past six months while Boynton Beach was under a moratorium, stopping any new group-home applications from being submitted. The rules, which were initially approved on Tuesday night, apply to all group homes.

The City Commission chose to enact the temporary ban to allow staff time to see how the city’s rules could be improved for residents of single-family neighborhoods, who feel their way of life has been affected by an influx of sober homes. Also, staff needed to make sure the city is doing what it can to protect those residents in the recovery homes, and that, ultimately, the city’s rules comply with federal laws.

Also under the new regulations, sober homes with 14 or less residents have to be a minimum of 300 feet away — or the length of about four homes — from another one. That’s a change from 1,000 feet, a distance which would make the sober homes further spread out. Staff said 1,000 feet isn’t supported by case law. Still, some commissioners didn’t think 300 feet was enough and asked staff to present other options at the final hearing scheduled for July 18.

“These are new regulations, venturing in an area that has been uncharted if you will. We’ll be monitoring them over time,” said Mike Rumpf, the city’s planning and zoning director.

Existing sober homes would have to meet the certification requirement, but would be grandfathered in if they don’t meet the distance requirement, Rumpf added.

Read: Addiction treatment bonanza: How urine tests rake in millions

Boynton and Delray Beach are the first cities in the state to propose forcing sober homes to tighten standards and stop settling in clusters. Boynton Vice Mayor Justin Katz applauded staff for coming up with the new rules and for picking “up the slack where the state has failed.”

The new rules categorize group homes into three types depending on size and intensity of activity:

Staff removed Type 4 from the city’s code, which singled out recovery homes and mental health or substance residential treatment homes, to avoid discriminating against such protected classes of residents.

Boynton’s regulations also propose stricter parking requirements. However the “foundation” of the rules, Rumpf said, is the certification aspect.

Rumpf estimated there are 50 sober homes in the city.

At one time there were three on Riviera Drive, a cul-de-sac just north of Woolbright Road on a finger canal that leads to the Intracoastal Waterway. Staff analyzed the effect they had on the neighborhood and found that traffic volume was in excess of 200 percent that of the average daily volume for a single-family neighborhood. The neighborhood generated twice the amount of emergency calls than a neighborhood of a similar size and design that didn’t have any group homes.

Frustrated homeowners call the street “Rehab Drive.” Some walk around with pistols — protection, they say, after shouting matches with people in the sober homes.

Read: Sober Home Invasion. Neighbors say they are under siege.

Overall in Boynton, there have been 250 opioid overdose calls in the first five months of this year, and 10 of those people died. In that same time period, fire rescue has used more than $10,000 of Narcan, the anti-overdose drug. However, staff did not say how many of those overdoses happened at, or are connected to, sober homes.

The industry, which draws addicts to southern Palm Beach County, has been corrupted by fast profits on unnecessary drug-screening tests charged to health insurers. The homes are protected from discrimination under federal law, limiting the powers of local communities to restrict them.