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Clark County mental health facility approved for Mount Vista neighborhood sparks safety concerns

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
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A project site for a proposed behavioral health community at 16015 N.E. 50th Avenue is currently undeveloped.
A project site for a proposed behavioral health community at 16015 N.E. 50th Avenue is currently undeveloped. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A planned behavioral health facility in Clark County’s Mount Vista neighborhood received a critical approval this month from a county hearing examiner.

Tyler Hemstreet, media relations manager for the state Department of Social and Health Services, said the examiner approved a conditional use permit for the facility on Aug. 10.

The DSHS facility would be built on 11.84 acres at 16015 N.E. 50th Ave. It will consist of three single-story buildings, each with 16 beds. It would house civil-commitment patients for 90 to 180 days, although commitments could be extended by the court.

The Department of Social and Health Services would run one facility and the Washington State Health Care Authority would contract teams to run the other two. All three would provide initial intake and evaluation, medical screening, psychiatric screening, risk screening, psychological/biological/social evaluation, treatment and peer support to 48 patients.

The approval will come as unwelcome news to residents opposed to the project. During a two-part public hearing held May 26 and June 16, nearly a dozen residents testified against the project, citing concerns about traffic, nearby wetlands, its proximity to schools, stormwater runoff and how the site was chosen.

Among those testifying was Clark County-based Attorney Steve Morasch. Morasch came to the hearing to represent several of the residents including some who helped found the No Mental Facility group. Safety was one the biggest concerns for residents, he said.

“You could have a situation where it may not be a lockdown facility … but they may house some individuals, maybe in one wing or some rooms, that may need to be subject to partial or full confinement,” which would impose the 300-foot setback from schools set by land-use code, Morasch said at the hearing.

The attorney argued that the planned facility is essentially a diversional facility for criminals with mental health issues. Clark County Council District 5 candidate Don Benton took it a step further. During a June interview, Benton called the facility a “jail for the criminally insane” and said it needed to be turned down.

Hemstreet said Benton’s description is not correct. He said Clark County code for residential care facilities, including the DSHS proposed facility, excludes prisons or conventional correctional institutions involving 24-hour locked incarceration with little or no freedom of movement.

“The proposed Clark County residential treatment facilities are considered evaluation and treatment facilities which offer inpatient care to persons suffering from a mental disorder,” Hemstreet said.

The hearing examiner’s ruling comes with conditions for landscaping, wetlands mitigation, transportation, a Department of Ecology permit for stormwater and security, among others. The full ruling can be found at https://bit.ly/3pAdIMe.

Now that the conditional use permit has been approved, Hemstreet said the next steps would be to request a building permit, get an updated cost estimate from the general contractor/construction manager, fine tune project cost estimates and update the construction schedule with the design team to create an accurate timeline. Construction was expected to begin later this year, with the first building open to patients by fall or winter of 2023, but that may change.

Hemstreet said there are no additional public meetings planned.

“At this point, I don’t anticipate any. We will probably be sending out an update to our contact list of folks who are interested in the project and what is going on,” he said.

Hemstreet said some of the individuals on the contact list were strongly opposed to the project, even filing State Environmental Policy Act appeals (which were denied by the hearing examiner) so he expects to get some push-back.

“We are also in the midst of building the framework for some kind of board made up of community members interested in the facility and how we treat those with mental health issues. It can also serve as a venue for us to invite stakeholders to the facility for tours and to possibly host conversations with DSHS leadership. We will be working on that while construction is taking place so it will be ready to go when the buildings are finished,” Hemstreet said.

For more information on the facility and project updates, go to https://bit.ly/3PN6Cyt.

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