Get Well Elsewhere

Malibu Cracks Down on Posh Rehab Facilities

Christine Pelisek on Malibu’s frustrated efforts to drive out swanky treatment centers.

With its sandy beaches and panoramic views, Malibu has long been a mecca for luxury rehab centers that cater to the extremely rich.

Britney Spears, Ben Affleck, Charlie Sheen, and Lindsay Lohan are among the stars that have tried to kick their various habits at one of the L.A. suburb’s swanky facilities, often paying upwards of $30,000 a month for deluxe trappings such as fine cuisine, acupuncture, yoga, and equestrian therapy.

But Malibu residents and city officials say the rehab centers are more scourge than remedy, flouting local laws with little oversight by the state—all under the guise of making wads of cash by drawing in more wealthy clients. And they’re ramping up a campaign to take back their quiet oasis. No more paparazzi, they say. No more traffic jams on dead-end streets. No more escaped patients wandering the streets.

“Some of them believe that they don’t have to blend into the neighborhood, and instead the neighborhood should blend in with them,” said Malibu Mayor Joan House. “They’re being rugged cowboys and doing what they want, and that is unacceptable.”

House and other local officials say some of the more posh joints have started expanding their businesses by buying up adjacent and nearby homes, changing the nature of the pristine secluded neighborhoods.

“They’ve become big businesses, and there’s a lot of money involved,” said Malibu City Attorney Christi Hogin. “We’re looking at facilities that are competing against each other for better food, bigger gyms, and more amenities. They’re buying up so many properties they’re becoming a campus and controlling the neighborhood.”

In May, the city made accusations against Passages Malibu, which was founded in 2001 by former real-estate developer Chris Prentiss, whose son and co-director Pax fought a 10-year heroin addiction. They accused Passages, which runs eight five- to six-bed rehabs in Malibu and has hosted the likes of Mel Gibson and designer Marc Jacobs, of tacking on fake addresses to pool houses and guesthouses in order to get additional facilities licensed.

“They were mailing applications to the state for licenses for single-family residences on addresses they made up,” says Hogin. “Only the city can issue addresses. It is fraudulent. It is a violation of city laws, which prohibit more than one single-family residence per lot. But there’s a lot of money changing hands and it creates a lot of motivation.”

Passages Malibu, which provides such accoutrements as a meditative koi pond, massage room, and hypnotherapy, did not return a call for comment.

Much of the battle seems to come down to Malibu residents hoping to preserve a certain way of life. Over the last year, city officials say they have received numerous nuisance and public-safety complaints as well as issues involving overburdened septic tanks, cars racing through neighborhoods, illegal construction, cars clogging up the streets, and the occasional rehab patient wandering in a daze down a street.

“In front of our house we have 35 cars going up and down the street on every shift change,” said Ken Kearsley, a former Malibu mayor. “In one parking lot there are 27 cars. What they have done is taken a small neighborhood with dead-end streets and turned it into a medical neighborhood. It’s like living in Times Square.”

Kearsley, who has lived in the neighborhood for 52 years, says he has tried to take up the cause with state lawmakers but to no avail. A lawsuit would be costly and drain his savings. “Most people think everyone in Malibu is rich,” he said. “I’m a former school teacher. There are people in Malibu that aren’t millionaires and can’t afford to fight them.”

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Malibu City Councilman Lou La Monte says the rehabs began moving into the neighborhood 25 years ago. “Every celebrity you saw in the back page of a newspaper was here,” he said. “There were black SUVs and paparazzi everywhere. They come in and take over the neighborhood.”

Now, he says, the situation has amplified. “Malibu has one rehab for every 800 people.” Rehabs are regulated by the state, so the city is left with little control, says La Monte. “It’s all based on state level, and we are having a hard time getting the state to be responsive.”

California state law allows residential alcohol and drug treatment facilities serving six or fewer persons to be treated as single-family residences. Cities are allowed to apply zoning ordinances to these facilities as long as the restrictions are the same as applied to single-family residences.

For Rey Cano, a residential appraiser, the issue is more about public safety. Three months ago, Cano says he came home to discover a disoriented naked man in his 30s wandering down his street. “I gave him a blanket to cover up,” he said. “He had multiple lacerations, and there was dried blood everywhere. I was asking him some questions, and he finally said he needed some help.”

Cano said he called the police, and they drove the man back to his rehab center. After the encounter, Cano says he filed a formal complaint with the state, but has so far only received an email response from a caseworker.

“They still haven’t resolved it,” he said. Cano says he is just thankful the incident occurred during the day when his 13-year-old daughter was at school. “I want more accountability especially because of my 13-year-old daughter,” he said.

In May, the city attorney sent a letter to the Department of Alcohol and Drug Programs (ADP), the state agency responsible for policing drug and alcohol rehabilitation homes, asking them to revoke three of Passage’s licenses that were given out to a pool house and two guest houses because they were “obtained through misrepresentation.”

“By applying improper addresses to these structures, Passages is attempting to rent or otherwise use these structures as separate dwellings,” according to the letter. “This intent is further emphasized through Passages’ misinterpretation to the ADP that these structures are residences appropriate for licensure.” Passages Malibu further violated the law by using one of the guesthouses as a doctor’s office, according to the letter. (The state bans medical services on site).

The city attorney said it first brought the fake address issue to the attention of the ADP in 2007, and since then Passages “has repeated this pattern with two other properties,” according to the May letter.

In 2008, the state department sent a letter to Passages Malibu informing it that it had violated state and local laws and the state was preparing to seek revocation on two of the guesthouse addresses.

“Also misrepresentation of any material fact in obtaining an alcoholism or drug abuse recovery or treatment facility license is grounds for the revocation of any license under the provisions of Health and Safety Codes,” it read.

In a follow-up letter to the state, Passages Malibu denied any such violations, stating that the two guesthouses were properly licensed with the state and city.

“Even though there is above average number of them in some affluent coastal towns there is still an overall shortage of them in the state,” wrote Passages co-founder Chris Prentiss. “I believe that much of the fervor would subside if the ADP would take a firm stand to protect these facilities and make known its intention to abide by the current legislation rather than to sympathize with the few communities who feel they have too many.”

In May 2008, the ADP asked the city of Malibu for a response to Passage’s claims. It responded the following month, and city officials say they have been waiting years for a "final determination."

“It is probably the beginning of a long battle,” says La Monte. “The state didn’t help us before so we are asking them again. I don’t think we will wait another five years.”

ADP spokesperson Carol Sloan says the department is “currently looking into whether there are any licensing violations [at Passages].”

Meanwhile, La Monte says the city is currently taking a closer look at all the rehab facilities in Malibu. “We are investigating right now,” he says. “We are going to take our town back.”