SOUTH OGDEN — South Ogden City and a substance abuse treatment center are jousting in federal court over the legality of the city's refusal to allow the site to expand to 32 beds.
Brighton Recovery Center, which moved into a former Benedictine monastery in an upscale neighborhood in 2014, has been the focus of legal battles since it opened.
The owners originally proposed establishing a 64-bed center. But after an uproar by neighbors worried about traffic, noise and property values, and following an extensive review by the city, the center received a permit to provide treatment for up to 20 people recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse.
A neighborhood group sued the city to stop the project, but it dropped the case a year later after neighbors and the center agreed on steps to protect the community from any adverse impacts.
The city spent $67,000 defending itself in the case and claimed justification after the neighbors and the treatment center were able to settle the suit.
"Ultimately, the city’s actions were proper and we believe appropriately walked the fine line between valid citizen concerns, property owner rights, and applying the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act — no easy task," James Minster, then the mayor, said in a prepared statement at the time.
But the amicable end to the neighborhood group's suit only foreshadowed a resumption of legal hostilities in 2017.
Recovery Land Holding LLC, parent company of Brighton, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City on Sept. 29, 2017, after the city's rejection of a proposal for a "reasonable accommodation" to expand the center to 32 beds.
The center, at 6000 South and 1075 East, sits on a 19-acre campus.
On Nov. 11, 2018, the city filed a motion for summary judgment, asking Judge Ted Stewart to dismiss the suit.
Brighton followed up on Dec. 21 with a brief expanding upon its arguments that the city violated the Fair Housing Act and the ADA while discriminating against people suffering from substance abuse.
Stewart now will decide whether the case will go to trial or be dismissed.
In court documents, Brighton's attorneys contend the ordinance regulating group living arrangements "was drafted with discriminatory intent."
"While the language of the ordinance purports to apply to all group living arrangements, it was drafted with the sole purpose of restricting housing for the disabled," the company said.
The ordinance, the company argued, "was specifically drafted to apply to all (group living arrangements) as a way around the Fair Housing Act, its alleged neutrality a cover for its true purpose of targeting the disabled."
The need for private substance abuse rehabilitation centers is dire as Utah suffers from an opioid abuse epidemic, Brighton asserted.
It quoted state data that said there are only 28 private residential treatment beds available in Weber County, including the 20 at Brighton. Public-sponsored treatment programs help hundreds more, but still, 9,600 adults who need treatment in the county are going without.
Further, Brighton submitted a consultant's study that the additional 12 beds at the center would result in only an "imperceptible" increase in traffic in the neighborhood during peak driving hours.
"By limiting housing for disabled people to multi-family and commercial zones, the ordinance violates the core goals" of the Fair Housing Act, Brighton argued. "Courts have held that equal opportunity means giving handicapped individuals the right to choose to live in single-family neighborhoods, for that right serves to end the exclusion of handicapped individuals from the American mainstream.”
However, the city said its ordinance created a built-in accommodation for up to eight substance abuse patients to live at a treatment site, and that the permit allowing 20 at Brighton was further evidence of the city responding affirmatively to the center's proposals.
"It is an attempt to create a preference to accommodate the disabled, not limit them," the city's motion said. "Rather than violating the law, this built-in accommodation goes beyond what the law requires."
The city added, "The goal of housing discrimination laws is not to enhance therapy, promote recovery, solve the national drug addiction crisis, or to accommodate disabilities in general; it is to ensure equal housing to persons with disabilities."
Jonathan Saul, Brighton's founder and executive director, did not immediately respond to a phone message.
City Manager Matt Dixon said Brighton's operation has been smooth sailing from his perspective.
"We have not had any issues that have caused me any stress since they've moved in," Dixon said Friday. "We hope that means they are operating and being successful and being good neighbors."