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  • Cynthia McDonald

January 2024 Update - Sober Living, IHO and FDC

Happy New Year! A lot went on at the end of 2023 in Costa Mesa politics.  Here’s an update:

SOBER LIVING HOMES.  In November, several things happened on the sober living front. First, the City tried to get the United States Supreme Court to hear the case brought by SoCal Recovery, LLC against the City but SCOTUS refused. That sent the case back down to a lower court to decide the merits of the case, which is based on the theory that our sober living laws discriminate against the operators by violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The City will likely continue its fight, but the legal bills are mounting.

The second thing that happened was the City received a “technical assistance” letter from the State of California Department of Housing and Community Development (“HCD”) about our group home ordinance, which includes regulations for sober living homes. A technical assistance letter is the first step in the HCD’s process of requesting corrective action by a city or county. The State has had the City of Costa Mesa in its crosshairs for some time now, but the HCD has now taken a particular interest in how it perceives the City discriminated against disabled persons (the residents of the sober living homes). The letter from the HCD followed the State joining into a lawsuit last summer against the City brought by another sober living home operator, The Ohio House, LLC. The letter instructed the City to stop enforcing its group home ordinance, repeal it, and replace it with a reasonable accommodation policy that isn’t discriminatory.

Please remember that our Housing Element is not compliant with California law and will not be deemed compliant by the HCD until the City completes all the programs in the Housing Element and the associated rezoning (more on the importance of compliance below). Of the 41 programs in the Housing element, five of them deal with group homes.

What does this mean? I am waiting to get an acknowledgment from the City that it is facing a rather large problem. The City can provide a more complete analysis, but here’s my guess at what some of the issues are. First, how much is the City going to spend defending a law that the State has told it to repeal? Second, how does it intend to regulate sober living homes that have been the source of many complaints by residents? Third, what does the City see in its future in terms of lawsuits from group home operators and their residents as a result of the prior enforcement of its ordinance? These questions are all part of a risk analysis that the residents deserve.

INCLUSIONARY HOUSING ORDINANCE.  In late December, the Planning Commission made modifications to the draft IHO and sent its recommendations to the City Council. You may want to look at our blog post found here for background. Look for this item to appear on the City Council agenda in the next few months, as it is another program of the Housing Element that will need to be completed for the Housing Element to be deemed compliant by the HCD. The Planning Commission’s version of the draft IHO won’t result in many affordable units being built, despite the need. Some Planning Commissioners leaned heavily towards making developers happy, even referring to them as the City’s “clients”, while other Commissioners were interested in helping the residents. The result was a watered-down version that reduced the percentage to 10% low-income and 5% very low-income units to be built in any rental project greater than 60 units down from 19% low-income and 12% very low-income. The percentages are even less for projects that have fewer than 60 units (6%/4%).  Homeownership opportunities are exempt, as are any projects fewer than 10 units and any project within the Fairview Developmental Center Specific Plan (that specific plan will have its own affordability requirements).

The real kicker was the change made by Staff by the addition of a special provision for the Measure K areas. Remember that Measure K removed the vote required on certain large projects under Measure Y from the “corridors,” but those corridor areas have not yet been rezoned. After rezoning, the Measure K areas only have to provide 6% low-income and 4% very low-income affordable units in projects with less than 60 units. The City Council promised us that Measure K would solve the City’s affordable housing woes, but using these low percentages will not make that happen.

Again, this should come before the City Council in early 2024.

MORE ON WHY HOUSING ELEMENT COMPLIANCE IS IMPORTANT.  I wonder how the HCD will perceive such a poor effort by the City to require the inclusion of affordable units in any new projects. Will it send a similar “repeal and replace” letter with respect to the IHO? The City’s failure to complete the required rezoning and programs of the Housing Element could put us into a perpetual state of noncompliance, the consequences of which are:

  • The State can deny funding for projects (bonds, grants and loans)

  • The city will be subject to very large “builders remedy” projects

  • Disciplinary action by the State, including

    • Escalating fines

    • Suspension of local authority

    • Moratorium on the issuance of any new permits

    • Mandated compliance (courts can issue orders that force cities to comply, such as requiring sufficient inclusionary housing)

CANNABIS.  In response to the many complaints from residents about the proliferation of cannabis stores in the City, the Planning Commission has been whittling away at changes to the ordinance. So far, there isn’t a document with all of the changes it is considering and I don’t want to comment on anything that just exists “in the ether.” The next hearing on this item will be Monday, January 22, 2024, at 6:00 p.m. at City Hall.

FAIRVIEW DEVELOPMENTAL CENTER SPECIFIC PLAN AND PROPOSED EMERGENCY OPERATIONS CENTER.  The City held private meetings with “stakeholders” about what they would like to see done with the old Fairview Developmental Center property. I’ve described the public meeting below. So far, the City has not appointed a citizens advisory committee, as recommended by experts (including the State of California) in the area of urban planning public outreach. A citizens advisory committee was used to create a Specific Plan for the sister Developmental Center in Sonoma. The City of Costa Mesa has used citizen advisory committees before, resulting in increased transparency and the building of trust with the community. Drawing from diverse perspectives and local knowledge allowed for informed decision-making. The plans presented to the City Council were realistic while being tailored to our local context. All of this enhanced the democratic process and produced better results.

One of the biggest concerns with the FDC Specific Plan is the State’s proposed Emergency Operations Center (“EOC”) on about 15 acres of prime land.  On December 5 we learned that Mayor John Stephens and the City Manager met with State officials in Sacramento but were unsuccessful in persuading the State to move the project elsewhere. However, the State has agreed to remove the proposed helicopter pad. While that is all good and well, the fact remains that an EOC will still have a tremendous impact on not only the future residents but also the existing residents in the surrounding area. The draft environmental impact report was clear that there are detrimental effects in the form of air pollution during a full-scale emergency that would affect nearby residents. In addition, the State has not done the wildlife survey needed to fully disclose the impacts on certain species, including burrowing owls. The City needs to insist on better mitigation efforts and that the wildlife survey be completed before approval of the project.

The fact remains that the City is not considering the incompatibility of the existing and future residences with industrial uses, such as an EOC. I am troubled that the Master Developer will not view this as an opportunity to start with a clean slate and build the most desirable product, but rather just design what will pass with a consumer who isn’t concerned about living next to a pollution source.

In November there were two in-person meetings for the FDC Specific Plan project, one for English speakers and one for Spanish speakers. I attended the English language meeting on November 2. No City Council members attended, and only a few Planning Commissioners were there. About 75 people attended, but that includes City Staff and consultants. While it was apparent some developers had sent “ringers” to the meeting, there were a fair number of affordable housing advocates and Costa Mesa residents. Many in attendance complained about receiving short notice of the meeting. Some residents expressed frustration and distrust for the process. Again, this is not the recommended practice for creating a specific plan.

According to the white poster on each table, our task was to provide our thoughts on “What are the ingredients for a great neighborhood?”, but the agenda stated this part of the meeting was to “Gather input for the Vision and Guiding Principles.” At the end of the meeting, we were told the draft vision statement would be the topic of the next meeting, but that will not be the case.

The next meeting will be held on Tuesday, January 23, 2024, from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. at the Senior Center on West 19th Street. I just received a mailer today, so the City must have listened to the criticism by the residents. There will also be a virtual meeting on Monday, January 29, but I recommend attending in person as the virtual meeting was not well attended and the breakout sessions were not long enough to adequately provide input.

The City’s website shows a more expansive agenda for the January 23rd meeting:  Market and Existing Conditions, Review Vision and Guiding Principles – Activity Initial Input for Land Use Alternatives. It seems they have already determined the Vision and Guiding Principles and are going to start showing us what the Master Developer (likely already chosen by the State) wants to do. This will likely include an attempt to sway the public into accepting what the Master Developer intends to build. Please attend the meeting, but be very cautious and observant of being herded in one direction. Look for, but ignore, the architectural “charrettes,” which are pictures of what the developer wants to build, versus what you would like to see built. Please don’t hesitate to state your concerns and ideas.

Mailer from City about FDC Specific Plan meeting on January 23
FDC Specific Plan Meeting Mailer


01/22/24 6:00 p.m. – Planning Commission will revisit changes to cannabis regulations.

01/23/24 6:00 p.m. – Fairview Developmental Center Specific Plan – Meeting #2 - Market and Existing Conditions, Review Vision and Guiding Principles – Activity Initial Input for Land Use Alternatives.


INCLUSIONARY HOUSING ORDINANCE:  Let’s see what the City Council does with what the Planning Commission has sent them.

FAIRVIEW DEVELOPMENTAL CENTER SPECIFIC PLAN:  The third, and final, meeting on “Land Use Alternatives” will be held in late February (Spanish speakers) early March (English speakers).  The fact there are only three meetings on this topic shows an utter disregard by the City and City Council for the input of the residents, similar to the treatment Righeimer gave the residents during the General Plan update of 2014.

MEASURE K PART 2.  Expect to see another Measure K pop up on the City Council agenda in August for the November ballot.  This is Program 3G in the Housing Element and will repeal Measure Y in the residential areas of Costa Mesa.

WHY DO WE DO THIS?  Creating good cities is more than policy; it is about making moral and economic choices, building broad coalitions, recognizing shared values for the times when trade-offs have to be made, and elevating community knowledge for responsive solutions. Costa Mesa First strives to keep YOU informed and educated so we can have the best Costa Mesa possible. Thank you to those who supported us last year. If you ever want to throw a few bucks our way, please go to

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