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After months of study and public testimony, the St. Paul City Council adopted an ordinance Wednesday defining and regulating sober houses.

Council members approved it unanimously, ensuring it would take effect before a yearlong moratorium on new sober houses expires this fall.

A lawsuit is likely, opponents said after the vote.

Regulating the homes for recovering addicts has been a complex issue, with the city trying to square the concerns of neighbors with the rights and safety of sober-house residents.

"We've reached a reasonable balance," said Council Member Russ Stark, who talked about the logic behind the ordinance before calling for the vote.

Sober houses are a valuable part of the community, he said. But, Stark added, neighbors raised valid concerns that the city had no clear definition or guidelines up to this point. It's fair, he said, to place some regulations on the homes to maintain a neighborhood's character.

A city ordinance allows no more than four unrelated people to live together in one dwelling. That would put most sober houses in violation of the law because many house five or more people. But because recovering addicts are a protected class and live as a family unit without services, operators say, they should be granted special accommodations to live in residential neighborhoods.

Existing sober houses will be grandfathered in.

A controversial provision requiring a 330-foot distance between sober houses remained in the ordinance. The city, however, could allow houses to be closer together on a case-by-case basis.

Opponents say that's discriminatory toward sober-house residents, a federally protected class because chemically dependent people are considered disabled.

Sober people should be able to pick where they want to live, said John Curtiss, president of the Minnesota Association of Sober Homes and the Retreat recovery center.

"Our goal was to see where they [the council] went," Curtiss said. "What seems to be reasonable is in violation of federal law."

Several U.S. cities have lost lawsuits when trying to regulate sober houses.

Stark said the 330-foot distance requirement would allow for one new sober house per block, and the city has thousands of blocks.

The ordinance also says that:

• No more than 10 residents may live in a home in certain zoning districts.

• There should be at least 1.5 parking spaces per four residents.

• Operators must provide certain information to the city.

In other action Wednesday, the council unanimously approved the preliminary design plans -- alignment, number of stations, right-of-way -- for the Central Corridor light-rail line. The resolution noted 17 "outstanding issues," such as dealing with the major loss of on-street parking along University Avenue, ensuring bicycle parking near stations and building additional stations.

Council members also approved an increase in taxi fares.

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542