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Mental health facility planned near Salmon Creek sparks debate

Neighbors say state picked wrong spot for residential treatment center

By , Columbian staff writer
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A sign for a proposed behavioral health facility is pictured in Salmon Creek on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 4, 2021.
A sign for a proposed behavioral health facility is pictured in Salmon Creek on Thursday afternoon, Nov. 4, 2021. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Washington has a dire shortage of mental health providers and facilities, a shortage that has only grown worse with the coronavirus pandemic. To alleviate this shortage, the Legislature voted in 2021 to spend $500 million over the next two years to develop or improve behavioral health and substance use treatment programs throughout the state.

In Clark County, the Washington Department of Social and Health Services is looking to build a residential treatment facility near Northeast 159th Street and 50th Avenue in the Mount Vista/Salmon Creek area east of Washington State University Vancouver.

A similar facility is also proposed for Thurston County. DSHS has received approximately $57 million from the Legislature to design and build the facilities.

During an in-person open house for the project on Thursday, DSHS project coordinator Larry Covey said the agency studied civil commitment needs along the Interstate 5 corridor.

“What we found is that Clark County had no, or very limited, resources for this civil population,” Covey said.

The site will have three 16-bed buildings to house civil-commitment patients for 90 to 180 days, although orders can be extended by the court. DSHS will run one facility, and the Washington State Health Care Authority will contract teams to run the other two. All three will provide initial intake and evaluation, medical screening, psychiatric screening, risk screening, psychological/biological/social evaluation, treatment and peer support to the 48 patients.

DSHS says its goal is stabilize patients’ mental status and behavior, help them recover and return home or find an appropriate home with aftercare services.

While the state is currently working with Clark County on a conditional-use permit, it expects to have the site ready for patients within two years.

“We’re going to break ground in 2022, and in fall of 2023 it will open. The first (building) will come online,” said Tyler Hemstreet, media relations manager for DSHS’s Behavioral Health Administration.

Hemstreet said DSHS has already reached out to nearby businesses and schools to let them know about the new site.

“It’s been hit or miss with them wanting to meet with us one-on-one,” he said, adding Washington State University is looking forward to partnering with the agency for the school’s nursing program.

Local opposition

Residents near the proposed facility say the state got it wrong when it picked the current location. During an in-person open house hosted by DSHS on Thursday, residents voiced concerns about the site’s close proximity to schools, narrow roadways, rural location and lack of access to bus routes.

Rowena Musser, lives on 159th Street, said she agrees the state needs more treatment facilities, but she said the site it picked was a poor choice.

“Everybody in our area was totally blindsided,” Musser said. “We didn’t know about it until surveyors showed up to survey the land.”

Musser and her husband, Ron, said they got a copy of the pre-design report and started studying it.

“Where they ended up made no sense to us. It didn’t fit any of the analysis they had done,” she said.

Rowena Musser said the facility’s rural location will be difficult to reach for some families. Also, she said, Northeast 159th Street wasn’t built to handle the expected increase in traffic and lacks sidewalks for pedestrians. She also noted there are no supportive medical health facilities nearby.

“How do they intend to get families out here?” she asked. “Not everybody has a car.”

The Mussers said they are also frustrated by the state’s lack of response to their questions and concerns. Both worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hosting public meetings, and both said they are well versed in how public projects should be handled.

“You have to explain what your criteria was and how that criteria fits your locations,” Ron Musser said.

Not first pick

The current site wasn’t the state’s first pick. DSHS looked at five other sites and narrowed that list down to a location in Vancouver on Fourth Plain Boulevard near Columbia River Mental Health.

“We looked at a variety of different criteria to assess those sites. We tried to be focused on what’s important for the patient, what’s important for the community, what’s important for the loved ones and the support network for these folks, and what’s important for the staff,” Covey said.

Negotiations with the landowners for that site fell through, however.

Residents also said they were concerned about security at the facility and what happens once patients are released.

According to DSHS, all patients will receive individualized discharge plans tailored to meet their needs, and will include support such as medication management, case management and medical care. The state says a coordinated handoff will be done for all discharged patients.

In addition, all entrances and exits will be controlled by staff and an outdoors space for the residents will be enclosed by fencing and the buildings.

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