A split Costa Mesa Planning Commission this week recommended changes to the city's zoning code that may aid in enforcement actions against rehabilitation homes serving too many tenants.

Commissioners Colin McCarthy, Robert Dickson and Jeff Mathews voted in favor of the motion Monday evening while Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick and Commissioner Tim Sesler dissented.

The vote recommended that the City Council approve a more robust definition of what's officially dubbed a "single housekeeping unit."

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Senior Planner Mel Lee said the updated definition would give the city an "appropriate legal avenue" to pursue future cases against rehab homes that aren't following the rules.

State law says six or fewer people are allowed in such homes in neighborhoods zoned for single-family residences, or R1 zones.

Many residents, however, have decried the facilities' being in their neighborhoods, alleging them to be sources of robberies, loitering and other nuisances.

City officials, including council members, have called the problem complex and "very strange legal territory."

The definition-change request comes after the city went to court over the code enforcement of a Mesa North home. The case involved a code enforcement officer's 2011 visit to a house on Van Buren Avenue to enforce the six-or-fewer rule.

A judge eventually ruled that the city's definition of a single housekeeping unit was "legally indefensible," according to city documents.

City staff wrote the Van Buren Avenue house had 11 beds and 13 residents, though its operator, Patricia Bintliff, countered that statement. During Monday's meeting, she said the house — functioning as a "alternative family environment" — had 11 girls and 14 beds.

Bintliff added that it was never used as a treatment center "or a facility of any kind."

"I think it's very important to distinguish the difference," she said.

For homes that do have six or fewer residents, Lee said, "even though those occupants would not be related to each other, they would fall under the definition of 'single housekeeping unit' because they are functioning as the equivalent of a family in a single-family residence."

Some advocates alleged that the proposed change could be seen as discriminatory.

Paul Dumont, a Los Angeles volunteer housing rights advocate with the Sober Living Network, said the proposed change targets a "protected disabled class" that can include those in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.

He said the change could jeopardize Costa Mesa's U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development funding, and could be in violation of fair-housing laws.

Costa Mesa resident Grant McNiff, also with the Sober Living Network, asked, "What steps is the city taking to ensure that fair-housing opportunities are increasing, and that barriers to disabled housing are being eliminated?"

Some residents, however, alleged that the rehab homes are actually businesses — a point echoed by Dickson.

"We're talking about businesses running in an R1 zone," he said.

McCarthy said the change at hand was being "distorted" by fair-housing advocates.

"It's not discriminating against recovery homes and hurting people who are addicts," he said. "It's giving our city tools to protect residents."

In August, city officials said there are 104 known rehab homes in Costa Mesa, 50 of which have state-issued licenses.

The council is tentatively scheduled to hear the definition change during its Nov. 5 meeting.