Appeal Denied in Drug Rehab Project

Written by Neil Farrell

Neil has been a journalist covering the Estero Bay Area for over 27 years. He’s won numerous journalism awards in several different categories over his career.

May 6, 2021

With little choice, the Morro Bay Planning Commission voted to deny the appeal of a proposal to turn a North Main Street motel into a substance abuse treatment facility.

The Commission had little choice because State and Federal law identify such property uses as having a right to exist in all zoning designations where such facilities are allowed.

“People in alcohol and substance abuse recovery are considered disabled and under both State and Federal law, and are provided protections for housing for the disabled,” reads a staff report from Community Development Director Scot Graham. “California Fair Employment and Housing Act expressly prohibits discrimination through public or private land use practices and decisions that make housing opportunities unavailable.”

Graham back on Feb. 24 issued an administrative minor use permit that contained the normal conditions, including having to install curb, gutter and sidewalk across the Main Street frontage of the property, which is at 2460 N. Main and is currently called Rodeway Inn, but is perhaps better recognized by its former long-time name, The El Rancho Motel.

Last December, the new owners applied for a minor use permit to switch the 27-room motel into an in-house drug and alcohol treatment facility intended mainly for first responders — police and firefighters — battling addiction.

The project was met with a hailstorm of controversy as rumors and concerns and fears spread quickly on the Next Door Morro Bay website.

In the end Ashley Smith, a concerned neighbor of the property, appealed the project’s MUP to the commission. Her main bones of contention were that the MUP did not adequately address the impacts to the police and fire departments, the Chamber of Commerce and tourism; it did not adequately address measures to ensure the safety of the neighborhood; and, the permit does not adequately address the curriculum that will be used.
She wanted the police and fire chiefs and the Chamber to chime in on the permit. Graham’s report said the police and fire departments had both reviewed the project and approved it. And the Chamber of Commerce “is not a City agency and has no involvement in the review or approval of City issued permits.”

Among the many other arguments against the project was an assertion that the City was trying to sneak the project through without a public hearing.
Graham’s report states that State and Federal law prohibit the City from denying the project, and so he issued the administrative permit. The City Attorney echoed that sentiment during the meeting, saying the City could be sued for discrimination if the project were denied.

Graham told EBN, “Most of the issues raised by the public related to concerns about the type of residents that would be housed in the facility, which is not something we can really take into consideration. Folks in drug and alcohol programs are considered disabled and are therefore a protected class under state and fed. ADA laws.”

People seeking treatment would come to the facility, which will have a fence around it but will not be a “lock-down” facility, meaning people will be free to come and go but must sign in and out when they do, according to Rich Donald, who is the motel general manager.
Donald contacted Estero Bay News for this story in an attempt to ease fears amongst the neighbors that were expressed at the planning commission’s Zoom meeting.

“People are afraid of what could possibly happen,” Donald said the day after the commission meeting. “One woman said we were going to bring in busloads of pedophiles into the community. No, we’re not.”

He said the people who will run the facility are not the same people who own the motel (Brian Der Vartanian and his wife are the listed owners), and the company doing the change over has done several others like this.

The drug treatment facility will be licensed by the State of California, Donald explained. And the people who will check into the facility are not coming from prison or jail, he added.

They will not be violent people, or sex offenders, either. There will be no assaultive cases, Donald said. “The people who come here will be from the community and from outside the community to get treatment.”

Their stays may be just a week or two to several months depending on the time they need to get better. The facility will have medical staff and counselors, Donald, who hopes to be one of those when the facility opens, said.

He explained that for 12 years he was in Alaska working in a drug treatment facility for Native Alaskans, work that he really enjoyed.

“My mom got cancer and so I came back,” he said. For the past 8 years he’s worked at the Quality Inn in Pismo Beach, the last four as manager. He just recently got the Rodeway Inn job and had no idea the owners wanted to change it over.

“Just when I thought that [counseling] was over for me,” he said, “I land a job in Morro Bay that’s being turned into a drug and alcohol treatment. It’s a full circle for me. I had no idea it was going to become a drug and alcohol place.”

The treatment facility will have gates and security cameras, but “it can’t be a lockdown facility. But they will have to check out to leave,” Donald said.
As for the notion that they will kick addicts to the curb once their insurance runs out — one of the fears espoused online — he said, “They will be discharged to where they came from. Nobody gets discharged into the community unless they’re from the community.”

He added, “Pretty much everyone wants to go back to their families, to the people they know.”

Donald estimated it would be a year or possibly two before the switchover is completed. Meanwhile, he said he’s at the motel daily and if anyone wants to stop by with questions, he’d be happy to speak to them about the project.

He’s also starting an online forum (search: “North Morro Bay community forum”) to discuss this and other pressing issues that concern residents of North Morro Bay.

He was planning to hold the first online discussion May 4 (pre-press time) and the next May 27 if readers would like to join the forum and keep abreast of the project’s progress.

“This project isn’t the only issue North Morro Bay has,” Donald said. “We should also be talking about homelessness, mail theft, and other issues.”

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