Residents say mental health facility is not appropriate for the Mount Vista area

The two-part hearing on land use for a proposed residential mental health treatment facility on Northeast 50th Avenue, in the Mount Vista area, concluded 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 on 26 May.

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

The Department of Social and Health Services will operate one facility; The Washington State Health Care Authority will contract teams to operate the other two teams. The three will provide initial intake, evaluation, medical examination, psychological examination, risk examination, psychological/biological/social evaluation, treatment and peer support for 48 patients.

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

Residents of the Mount Vista neighborhood have raised concerns about how the site is selected and whether the facility is an appropriate use of the land. A few neighbors came together to form a “No Mental Facility” group that notes the site’s proximity to Vancouver iTech Prep and Gardner School of Arts and Sciences—plus Washington State University Vancouver to the west and Pleasant Valley Elementary and Middle Schools to the south—make it a poor choice.

Steve Morach, a Vancouver attorney representing some residents, noted concerns about having patients in criminal court in a closed facility near homes.

“You could have a situation where they may not have a closed facility…but they may house some individuals, perhaps in one ward or some rooms, who may need to undergo partial or full confinement,” which could impose a 300-foot setback from schools defined by law Land use, he said.

Morash said the type of facility being built fell under the category of prohibited facilities in residential areas.

“The proposed facility is actually a mix between mental health and criminal corrections,” he said during the hearing. “What is being proposed is basically a mixed or diversified facility for offenders with mental health issues, and for that reason, we think it fits in with a ban on lockdown facilities.”

While the site will house civil compliance patients, the DSHS said it will also feature restoring competency patients entering the inpatient behavioral health system through criminal courts.

According to the Department of Social and Health Services, “In order to convert our competency restoration patients into involuntary civic obligation, they had previously received competency restoration services, which include drug stabilization and administration, court system education, emotional regulation skills handling, and group therapy. If they are found to be ineligible to appear in court and cannot be brought back to this level of competence, the court can order an assessment of civil obligation.”

The department wants to build the treatment facility as part of its effort to alleviate the shortage of mental health providers and facilities across the state, particularly in southwest Washington.

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

A similar facility is also proposed for Thurston County. The Department of Social and Health Services received approximately $57 million from the legislature to design and build the facilities.

Another problem raised by neighbors is that the narrow two-lane Northeast 50th Avenue and Northeast 159th Street will not be able to handle the increased traffic that the facility will bring. The road study has been completed, but neighbors argue that it was conducted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when students were not attending classes themselves and many people were working from home. They want to re-examine traffic now that more drivers are back on the road.

However, David Jardine of Clark County Public Works said during the hearing that the traffic study data “was prepared in accordance with the policies and procedures that were in place at the time” and that the Department of Social and Health Services was able to use existing epidemic-adjusted traffic data and request the use of the data before the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The request to use the old numbers was made when the applicant’s engineer was interviewing the county to determine the scope of the proposed traffic study,” Jardine said, noting that the 2017 censuses were used for specific intersections because more recent data for those intersections was not yet available.

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

Jennifer Reynolds, the acting district engineer for public works, said the department reviewed the initial application for the Department of Social and Health Services, and “staff found that the applicant met or could meet the requirements but also recommended conditions for approval.”

One condition may be a requirement for an impermeable liner to ensure that groundwater from low-lying areas does not obstruct stormwater drainage processes.

If the hearing examiner agrees to the conditional use authorization, Reynolds said, the final application must still be submitted and approved.

Gavin Hawkins of Vancouver said the Department of Social and Health Services and the county said they were not sure the facility wouldn’t raise groundwater levels on nearby properties, and urged that a full hydrogeological study be completed.

“We’re all well and well known. We don’t want the negative effects of this, and we’re all still underwater with this year being very humid. We’re in water most of the year,” Hawkins said during the hearing.

Turner said he will leave the registry open until 5 p.m. on June 27 to allow additional comment to be provided. Comments may 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. To learn more about the DSHS project, go to https://bit.ly/3tK38oj.