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Cluster of residential drug rehabs upsets Las Vegas neighbors

Donna Botti used to enjoy walking with her toddler grandson around her cul-de-sac, stopping to chat with neighbors along the way. That was before the house across the street was converted into a residential treatment center for teens with addictions and mental health issues.

“I don’t take my grandbaby out front anymore,” said Botti, adding that she’s anxious about the increase in traffic, among other things. “These cars just zip on down the street.”

Botti and her neighbors said they were blindsided by the conversion late this summer of the Bahama Bay Court home, near Twain Avenue and Fort Apache Road in southwest Las Vegas, which has rattled their nerves over traffic, safety and home values.

They complained to Clark County government, only to be told that the residential treatment center was protected by the federal Fair Housing Act and the county’s hands were tied.

They were baffled. What does a federal law have to do with the county approving a bustling business on their formerly quiet cul-de-sac?

The short answer, according to the county, is that the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination against group homes — or “community residences,” in county government parlance — for people with disabilities. And, under the act, alcoholism, drug addiction and mental illness are considered disabilities.

The neighbors continue to grapple with the issue, their concerns only growing now that there are three such facilities within blocks of one another. But Wayne Niimi, who lives one street over from Botti, believes he knows why.

Many of the nearby homes were built in 1992 and have seven bedrooms and a large bonus room. “When we bought in, our cul-de-sac was full of kids. That’s what the spacious homes were meant for,” he said. Since then, he added, “The prices of the homes haven’t risen as you’d expect.

“They’ve taken full advantage of that, getting a large home for $100 a square-foot and converting them into these near hospitals. They found a real sweet spot in this neighborhood.”

A protected class

The Bahama Bay court home was purchased in January by the Beron Family Trust and Rachel Golda Beron Trust, and leased to Los Angeles-based Ignite Teen Treatment.

Ignite Teen Treatment operates two of the residential treatment facilities in the area, one on each side of Twain Avenue.

In an email, Ignite CEO Mendi Baron noted that “behavioral health resources are in critically short supply — and especially so for teens.”

“Ignite’s centers serve clients who voluntarily enter treatment to obtain necessary help in coping with a variety of challenging behaviors, influences and concerns that impact adolescents,” Baron said. “Ignite proudly serves teens who are struggling with a range of challenges from addiction to controlling behaviors that are impediments to success in society and the classroom.”

For the Bahama Bay Court address, the company requested the county’s approval “to house 10 adolescents in a state-licensed therapeutic family/group home setting utilizing the protections of the Federal Fair Housing and Americans with Disabilities Act(s),” according to a justification letter filed with the county.

Among the public policy goals behind allowing group homes in residential neighborhoods are that those with mental or physical limitations should not be denied a residential experience, and that support from others experiencing similar challenges improves chances for further success, said Ngai Pindell, a professor with UNLV’s Boyd School of Law.

“Without statutory protection, some local government or neighborhoods might engage in discrimination against people with disabilities — a classic NIMBY or Not in My Backyard land use challenge,” said Pindell, who teaches and writes on community development and local government law.

The Fair Housing Act, as it was amended in 1988, makes it illegal to discriminate in housing against people with handicaps, including people recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. Congressional discussion during consideration of amendments to the act, as well as related statutes, supported this inclusion, which has been upheld by the courts since the 1990s, Pindell said.

‘Running a business’

Clark County government has little discretion when it comes to community residences, a spokesman said. The county approved Ignite’s application through administrative action and did not notify neighbors.

“Community residences are required to notify us prior to opening so we can ensure they are not closer that 660 feet from the nearest community residence,” said spokesman Dan Kulin. “If they are not closer than that, they are permitted in residential areas under federal law and we do not have the discretion to deny such a use in this case. If they are closer than 660 feet, they would need a special-use permit from the county.”

The residents thought they’d found a winning argument in the distance requirements, until they learned that the distance is measured by the shortest pedestrian route and not as the crow flies. The third residence, a sober-living facility operated by SeaBreeze Wellness Center, is located three streets over from Bahama Bay Court.

The neighbors still question whether the Bahama Bay Court facility, at least, might not fit the community residence definition.

“They’re running a business out of our neighborhood,” said Victor Padron, who lives next door to the treatment center. “The whole neighborhood has changed.”

County code specifically states that the term community residence “does not include facilities for the treatment of alcohol or drug abuse.”

“The community residence should not be providing medical treatment for alcohol and drug abuse,” Kulin said. “The preclusion of treating alcohol and drug abuse relates to medical interaction and medical treatment for the condition. It in no way infers that addicts cannot live in a community residence or group housing as they are a protected class.”

Ignite states on its website that “clients at the adolescent rehab program live onsite with the 24-hour support of our treatment team comprised of licensed therapists, (a) psychiatrist, nurses, addiction specialists, experiential counselors, educators, counselors and mentors.”

Conducting medical treatment on site would violate county code, Kulin said, adding, “They are allowed to have support services, for example, transportation to medical treatment.”

Baron, the company’s CEO, did not respond to a question Friday about whether medical treatment was provided on-site.

Good neighbor

In an earlier email, Baron said, “Ignite strives to be a good neighbor while keeping its clients close to a traditional, residential neighborhood so as to not stigmatize their recovery. Specifically, Ignite has adopted numerous policies aimed at addressing the concerns of its neighbors, including complete bans on tobacco, alcohol, loitering and any activities at a loud or excessive volume.”

Padron, the next-door neighbor, said that while he doesn’t have noise complaints, he worries about the value of his home. As he bluntly put it, “Who would buy a house next to a drug rehabilitation center?”

And like his neighbors, he said he’s bothered by vehicles and shuttle buses coming and going throughout the day, and the half a dozen or more cars often parked on the street.

Michael Shannon, an aide to County Commissioner Justin Jones, whose district includes the area, emailed Botti this month that “the case in regard to illegal use is closed as the community residence is allowed in residential neighborhoods.”

“I will continue to try and work with Ignite Teen Treatment to take steps to minimize impacts to your neighborhood, especially related to traffic and parking,” Shannon said.

This was not the response the neighbors were hoping for.

“They have all the rights,” Botti said of the treatment center. “We have nothing.”

The neighbors are now contacting their representatives in Congress — the body that 30 years ago amended the Fair Housing Act.

“I can understand the spirit of the exceptions they make for these treatment facilities,” Niimi said. “I don’t think they envisioned anything like this, on this scale, having so many people in a home, and running a business out of it.”

Contact Mary Hynes at mhynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0336. Follow @MaryHynes1 on Twitter.

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