Tuesday, December 6, 2022
Dec. 6, 2022

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Residents say mental health facility is not a good fit for Mount Vista area

Two-part land-use hearing wraps up; decision is expected by July 26

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
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A bicyclist passes a sign protesting a proposed behavioral health facility near Northeast 50th Avenue and Northeast 159th Street.
A bicyclist passes a sign protesting a proposed behavioral health facility near Northeast 50th Avenue and Northeast 159th Street. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A two-part land-use hearing for a proposed residential mental health treatment facility on Northeast 50th Avenue, in the Mount Vista area, wrapped up Thursday evening, but a decision from Hearing Examiner Joe Turner likely won’t come until late July. The first part of the hearing was held May 26.

The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services facility would consist of three, single-story buildings, each with 16 beds. The facility would house civil-commitment patients for 90 to 180 days, although commitments can be extended by the court.

The Department of Social and Health Services would run one facility; 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 the 48 patients.

If approved, construction on the facility could begin later this year, with the first building open to patients by fall or winter of 2023.

Residents in the Mount Vista neighborhood have raised concerns about how the site was chosen and whether the facility is an appropriate use for the land. Some neighbors have banded together to form a “No Mental Facility” group that says the site’s close proximity to the Vancouver iTech Preparatory school and Gardner School of Arts and Sciences — as well as Washington State University Vancouver to the west and the Pleasant Valley elementary and middle schools to the south — make it a poor choice.

Steve Morasch, a Vancouver attorney representing some of the residents, cited concerns about having criminal court patients in a lockdown facility near homes.

“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, he said.

Morasch said the type of facility being built falls under the category of facilities prohibited in residential areas.

“The proposed facility is really a hybrid between mental health and criminal corrections,” he said during the hearing. “What’s being proposed is essentially a hybrid or diversional facility for criminals with mental health issues, and for that reason, we believe it fits within the prohibition of lockdown facilities.”

While the site would house civil-commitment patients, DSHS said it would also house former competency-restoration patients entering the inpatient behavioral health system through the criminal courts.

According to the Department of Social and Health Services, “In order for our competency restoration patients to be converted to involuntary civil commitment, they would have previously received competency restoration services, which includes medication stabilization and management, education about the court system, coping and emotional regulation skills, and group treatment. If they are found to be not competent to stand trial and not restorable to that level of competency, the court can order for civil commitment evaluation.”

The department wants to build the treatment facility as part of its efforts to alleviate a shortage of mental health providers and facilities throughout the state, especially in Southwest Washington.

In 2021, the Legislature approved spending $500 million over two years to develop or improve behavioral health and substance-use treatment programs across Washington.

The Department of Social and Health Services has received about $57 million from the Legislature to design and build the facilities.

Another issue raised by neighbors is that Northeast 50th Avenue and Northeast 159th Street are narrow, two-lane roads that won’t be able to handle the increased traffic the facility would bring. A road study was completed, but neighbors argue it was done during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were not attending classes in person and many people were working from home. They want the traffic study to be redone now that more drivers are back on the road.

However, David Jardin of Clark County Public Works said during the hearing that the data for the traffic study “was prepared in accordance to the policies and procedures that were in place at the time” and that the Department of Social and Health Services was able to use current traffic data adjusted for the pandemic and asked to use data from prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The request to use older counts was made when the applicant’s engineer was corresponding with the county to determine the scope of the proposed traffic study,” Jardin said, noting that 2017 counts for specific intersections were used because more recent data for those intersections was not available.

An additional concern for residents is what will happen with stormwater runoff. The Department of Social and Health Services said it conducted a thorough review through the State Environmental Policy Act process and found no significant environmental impacts.

Jennifer Reynolds, the acting county engineer for Public Works, said the department has reviewed the Department of Social and Health Services’ preliminary application, and “staff found the applicant met or could meet the requirements but also recommended conditions for approval.”

One condition could be a requirement for an impermeable liner to ensure that groundwater from low-lying areas doesn’t impede stormwater operations.

If the hearing examiner approves the conditional use permit, Reynolds said, a final application would still need to be submitted and approved.

Gavin Huckins of Vancouver said the Department of Social and Health Services and the county have said they aren’t sure the facility won’t raise groundwater levels on neighboring properties, and they urged that a full hydrogeology study be completed.

“We’re all on well and septic. We don’t want the negative effects of this, and we’re all under water still with this year being super wet. But much of the year we’re under water,” Huckins said during the hearing.

Turner said he will leave the record open until 5 p.m. June 27 to allow for additional comment to be submitted. Comments can be sent to marion.bateman@clark.wa.gov. Turner said he expects to issue his decision by July 26.

To watch the hearing, go to www.cvtv.org. For more on the DSHS project, go to https://bit.ly/3tK38oj.

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