Sobering news

More than a decade ago, Boca Raton lost its fight to isolate “sober houses” in certain parts of the city. Now, Boca is supporting the far more modest effort in the Florida Legislature to regulate what used to be called halfway houses. The issue, though, has become even bigger.

South Florida always has drawn operators of private facilities to treat drug and alcohol addiction. The climate is a marketing tool, and the region’s affluence and lifestyle tend to produce patients for the sober houses. Legitimate operators try to establish facilities in residential neighborhoods because, according to experts in the field, such settings—in lower-crime areas, with pleasant surroundings—are most conducive to effective treatment.

Some operators, though, merely “churn” patients, taking their deposits and then dumping them on the street. For neighbors of such facilities, the problem is similar to that posed by vacation rentals: a business operating in an area zoned for residential. In Boca, one operator was treating nearly 400 people in 14 apartment buildings clustered within one quarter-mile of the city.

Boca Raton’s response to complaints in 2002 was to approve ordinances that restricted sober houses to the city’s medical district and neighborhoods with motels. But the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination of those with disabilities, and the Supreme Court has ruled that the Americans With Disabilities Act defines substance abuse as a disability. The Supreme Court ruled against Boca Raton.

The problem worsened after the real estate bubble burst in 2007-08. Many properties were for sale on the cheap, and operators of sober houses began buying them. Delray Beach probably is the epicenter of the issue in Palm Beach County, but Lake Park, Wellington and Royal Palm Beach also have joined Boca and Delray in asking for help in regulating what is mostly an unregulated business. In West Palm Beach, an operator of sober houses has been buying up cheap condos in one development.

Another factor has been the state’s crackdown on prescription painkillers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that people who abuse drugs such as oxycontin are much more likely to abuse heroin, and heroin deaths have been rising nationwide since 2007. South Florida’s former oxycontin addicts, with less access to the painkillers, are today’s heroin addicts.

Senate Bill 582 in the Legislature would require sober houses to be registered with the Florida Department of Children and Families, and for employees to undergo background checks. Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, also sponsored a similar bill last year. He acknowledges that his legislation would have at most a modest benefit, but believes that it could drive out some of the sleazy operators. “There’s a lot of profit to be made,” Clemens said, “if you’re willing to cut corners.” He believes that the legislation could survive legal challenges because it focuses on the patient, not the provider.

Long-term help would have to come from Congress, which could change the Fair Housing Act to stop abuses that lawmakers could not have anticipated a quarter-century ago. Clemens says such federal action would be like “turning a tanker.” Even at the state level, the fight is tough. The House version of Clemens’ bill makes registration only voluntary. Also, the Department of Children and Families has calculated that enforcing registration would cost $7 million. Clemens believes that the agency inflated the figure because it doesn’t want to do the enforcement at a time when the DCF is reeling from a Miami Herald report that nearly 500 children were abused or died while under state supervision.

In the meantime, cities are left mostly defenseless against a problem they didn’t create, and addicts are mostly defenseless against exploitation.

District 4 and more

This could be the first year Steven Abrams has had to run for the Palm Beach County Commission, even though he’s been on the commission since March 2009.

Then-Gov. Charlie Crist appointed Abrams, a Republican and former Boca Raton mayor and city council member, to replace Mary McCarty, who went to prison for public corruption. In 2010, Abrams won a full, four-year term when no one else filed to run for the District 4 seat that includes all of southeastern Palm Beach County. This year, Democrat Andy O’Brien, a real estate consultant, has opened a campaign account and loaned himself $100,000.

Beyond the candidates, the issue for voters in District 4—which stretches as far north as South Palm Beach—and elsewhere in the county is that they can control just one seat on the seven-member commission. A 1988 referendum abolished countywide commission elections—commissioners did have to live in their districts—and expanded the commission from five to seven members. The cover story was that one of the new districts would be drawn to elect an African-American. The real story was that business groups wanted to dilute the power of south-county condo voters, who were perceived as being anti-business.

The new District 7 has had a black commissioner since it was created, so perhaps minority voters feel more empowered. But without an elected county chief executive, voters are mainly disenfranchised. A better system—if there’s no interest in creating an elected strong county mayor—would be four, regional, single-member districts and three at-large seats, so voters would elect at least a majority of the commissioners.

Parking woes

It can be risky for cities to act like private developers. One of Boca Raton’s gambles may be close to paying off, but a lot still needs to happen.

In December 2009, the city paid $7.5 million for the roughly 2.3 acres at Palmetto Park Road and Northeast 5th Avenue where the Wildflower restaurant and bar—a fabled 1980s pickup joint—had stood along the Intracoastal Waterway. When Boca Raton put the property up for bid, the city expected multiple offers. It got just one.

Fortunately, that one could be a good one. Hillstone Restaurant Group wants to lease the site for a Houston’s. Since the only time you can get a table without waiting at the Houston’s near Town Center Mall is, maybe, 3 p.m., the city council hopes that this new Houston’s could provide the waterfront dining spot envisioned when Boca Raton bought the property.

The proposal that went to the council in January calls for a 20-year lease, with options to extend it, and the city getting at least $500,000 a year in rent, with a 5 percent increase every five years, plus 5 percent of gross sales. The restaurant makes out. Boca Raton makes out. Win-win.

Let’s hope. The sticky issue, as Mayor Susan Haynie said last week, is that Hillstone must figure out the parking. Unlike the west-side Houston’s, this one would be near residential neighborhoods. A January memo from City Attorney George Brown indicates that the restaurant would need 205 parking spaces for the dining room and the bar, plus more for the patio customers.How will the developers pull this off? "It is not clear," Mr. Brown wrote.

Of course, across Palmetto Park Road to the southeast is Silver Palm Park and a city boat ramp. Would the city allow the restaurant to use those spaces? No, Mayor Haynie says. Emphatically. “We will protect our boat ramp.” The restaurant is supposed to open late next year.

You can email Randy Schultz at randy@bocamag.com

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About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.