Gilbert and Sober Living Homes Make Progress
Gilbert legislators recently approved an ordinance that makes Gilbert the first town in Arizona to recognize substance and alcohol abuse recovery residences as legitimate community entities.
The legislators’ decision represented the culmination of a two-year battle between the operators of Gilbert-area sober living homes and local residents who feared that these recovery residences would engulf and erode the social fabric of their neighborhood.
Mike Milillo, Gilbert’s zoning administrator for the past twelve years said the challenge faced by the town was how to strike a balance between these recovery residences and the neighborhood associations that came forward with a laundry list of concerns about the substance abuse recovery facilities operating in and around their community.
“When we first discovered these facilities about two years ago we tried to categorize them under an existing Gilbert ordinance aligning them with group homes for the handicapped – a protected class; but we quickly found that there were stark differences between the two. The group homes for the handicapped are licensed by the state of Arizona and provide care for their residents. The recovery residences were unlicensed and provided no services to its clientele.” Further investigation by Milillo and his staff found that Gilbert had gaps in its zoning ordinances that prevented recovery residences from operating legitimately in the area. The town took step to bridge these gaps.
Gonzalo Ardavin, president and CEO of Carla Vista Sober Living –one of several area recovery residences – said the new legislation spells relief for Gilbert-area sober living operations and clients who seek to restore their lives in these structured homes. “We have certainly come a long way in our journey to operate freely and openly,” Ardavin said. “I tip my hat to Gilbert’s governing body for seeing value in what Carla Vista and other sober living facilities have to offer – a better way of life for men and women who are serious about getting sober and staying sober.”
To get to this climax, Ardavin and other members of the sober living community last summer weighed in on a focus group created by Gilbert. The group’s objective was to get a handle on the structure of local recovery residences and what impact they may have on the Gilbert neighborhoods in which they operate. In addition to city officials and sober living representatives, the focus group also included citizens from various neighborhood groups and HOA. After a six-month study, the focus group discovered that sober living homes were protected under two key pieces of legislature — the federal Fair Housing Act and American with Disability Act. The focus group paved the way for dialogue among the recovery residence operators and concerned Gilbert citizens “The findings were a revelation for us,” Milillo said. “We discovered that Gilbert had to write legislation allowing recovery residences to operate and also to protect the neighborhood. We had to move forward to do the right thing, and I believe we did by passing legislation.”
According to Gilbert City Councilman Victor Petersen, he knew very little about sober living homes prior to constituents coming forward with concerns about these homes operating in their neighborhoods. “I have learned a lot about these sober living homes over the last two years,” Petersen said. “And I believe we have done a good job in ultimately getting everyone to the table and sorting things out. There is now a pathway to keep track of these homes, and a conduit to mitigate the concerns of the neighborhoods in which they operate.”
Ardavin and representatives from other Gilbert-area recovery residences like J&J Sober Living and ACE see the town’s move to pass legislation as a win for everyone. “I can use myself as a prime example,” explained Ardavin. “I created Carla Vista Sober Living six years ago because I saw and understood the benefit of getting sober. I struggled with addiction for more than a decade and lost a multi-million dollar business before getting sober in 2006. As I began to propel my life and regain my social and economic footing in the community, I saw the need to launch Carla Vista to give serious men and women the same opportunity I had to get sober.”
Ardavin says his next step is to get Chandler to follow in the footsteps of Gilbert. “The challenges that we once faced in Gilbert still exist in Chandler where city officials have turned a deaf ear to sober living operators and their request to get everyone in the same room for dialogue,” he said. “Chandler doesn’t recognize sober living homes as legitimate facilities that have the right to operate in the community… and we have had a hard time getting the government in this town to pause and listen to anything we have to say.”
Chandler city officials refute Ardavin’s comments by referencing the city’s open door policy that allows these homes to operate in area neighborhoods — upon registering with the city. “If they don’t register with Chandler then they are in violation of the city’s zoning codes,” said Jeff Kurtz, planning director for the City of Chandler.”
Kurtz went on to say that the biggest challenge Chandler-area recovery homes have is in the number of residents that are allowed to have. “Right now the city doesn’t allow group homes to have more than five occupants; but many of these sober living homes have doubled that number… and this is where the challenge comes in. We are presently working with seven sober living homes that have approached about the city’s occupancy restriction… and we have scheduled a meeting for July 1 to address this and to look into the possibility of to increase to increase – within reason – the number of occupants they can have.”