Columbia River Mental Health Services held a ribbon-cutting ceremony months ago for its NorthStar Clinic — an addiction treatment facility in central Vancouver. But the clinic only opened its doors to clients for the first time on Monday.
The delay stems from an appeal against the clinic, 7105 N.E. 40th St., made by Sonesta International Hotels Corp. three days after the August ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The company owns a three-star hotel less than a quarter of a mile from the facility and had concerns that the facility would increase problems related to homelessness and criminal activity, according to city documents.
NorthStar had to go through a conditional use permitting process to open the medical facility because the property, a former Elmer’s Pancake House, is zoned for commercial use. The process allows for appeals of the permit’s approval.
The city had approved the project after a June 6 public hearing but required Columbia River Mental Health to create a security plan for NorthStar in response to comments about safety concerns made by neighbors.
Sonesta appealed the approval, alleging the decision to approve the project contained errors.
Sonesta’s legal representation — attorney Bob Sterbank of the legal firm Foster Garvey — prepared a presentation on the appeal for the Vancouver City Council.
The presentation said the hearing examiner ignored “substantial evidence” of NorthStar’s “significant impacts” to Sonesta, including police reports around crimes near Columbia River Mental Health Services’ other facility, and failed to impose conditions to adequately mitigate those impacts.
Sonesta also had concerns about the facility’s compliance with city code and procedures.
According to city documents, city staff recommended denying the appeal, having found the facility was in compliance with all applicable codes and land use requirements. The city council unanimously voted to deny the appeal on Oct. 9.
Although the appeal set NorthStar’s opening back a few months, Columbia River Mental Health Services’ CEO, Victor Jackson, said he is happy to finally open its doors to the public.
“Unfortunately, the stigma around mental health and substance use disorder is alive and well. So a lot of the response, again, is really from a position of being misinformed about what this intervention does and how it’s able to improve lives,” Jackson said.
Between 2020 and 2022, 358 people died from overdoses in Clark County. That’s a 21.7 percent increase from overdose deaths in the two years before that, according to a county dashboard.
The clinic will allow Columbia River Mental Health Services to serve at least 182 additional patients per year, expanding its capacity by 33 percent.
Although NorthStar’s opening was delayed, Jackson said getting the facility open in just a little over a year was very fast.
“Of course, with the growing epidemic around fentanyl, it’s never fast enough because we’re kind of chasing the curve and being able to address a significant need,” he said.
The city of Vancouver declared a civil emergency in regard to homelessness last week, citing increased fentanyl use as one of the reasons. Many of Columbia River Mental Health Services’ clients are homeless and connected to the service through outreach teams. However, they also serve housed people struggling with substance use disorders as well.
“We’ve already demonstrated a pretty strong track record of saving lives and returning families home more whole,” Jackson said. “I just think that this NorthStar 2.0 will be able to elevate that.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.