Residents living near a proposed involuntary treatment center near Washington State University Vancouver have raised concerns about placing the state-owned facility in North Clark County as the project makes its way through the permitting process.
On June 16, Clark County hosted the second of two meetings to hear testimony on the proposed facility at 16015 NE 159th St. If built, the facility would include three secured buildings with 16 beds each for treatment of individuals committed through the state’s civil commitment program.
The facility, if completed, would be run by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). It is part of recent state legislation intended to regionalize mental health care in Washington.
DSHS Community Transition Director Jenise Gogan explained those at the facility would be individuals who are involuntarily committed by civil action for 90 or 180 days. In some cases, those detained would be individuals whose defense attorneys in criminal cases sought a competency evaluation on a shorter timeline, though they could end up being housed at the location for monthslong stays.
Those who would enter the facility after criminal involvement would have to meet civil commitment criteria. Gogan said that criteria is based on danger to self, danger to others or “grave disability.” The latter is based on whether an individual is deemed able to take care of oneself while maintaining safety.
DSHS Behavioral Health Administration Medical Director Brian Waiblinger said the project fits the classification of “residential care facility” in county code, which is allowed as a conditional use in the property’s current zoning.
That point took issue from one of several individuals appealing the decision to move forward with the project. Steve Morasch, an attorney representing a number of neighbors who are pushing back on the project, said the project proponents used a different definition from the North American Industry Classification System. He said the county’s own code prohibited “lockdown” facilities which he argued would supersede the development of the planned project.
Morasch also took issue with an apparent flouting of requirements regarding wetlands on the property. Given the application for the development came from the state, he felt there is an apparent double standard for state construction compared to private work. Many of those testifying against the project brought up how the project plans to fill in wetlands on the property.
“I think in this case the rules have to be applied the same to a government project as to a private project,” Morasch said.
He mentioned there were half a dozen alternative properties under consideration at one point, including one that appeared to not have any wetlands to worry about. He noted the preferred property’s sale ended up falling through.
“We’re not saying that DSHS has to go analyze the entire county with a site-specific analysis, but once they’ve picked half a dozen alternative sites, they need to do some analysis,” Morasch said.
During the June 16 hearing, several staff members of Clark County provided a rebuttal to concerns initially raised by appellants at the prior meeting on May 26. Appellant and Clark County Council candidate Don Benton said having apparent support from county attorneys on the project is “highly inappropriate.” Benton said the Clark County Council was told a co-lead agreement the county made with DSHS was approved to allow for an appeal process, not to actively support the project.
“It seems like all the government agencies are teaming up against the citizens, and it doesn’t seem to be quite fair,” Benton said.
Benton pressed on a primary concern among residents, who were concerned some of the people at the facility could potentially escape, which could lead to ramifications for those who live nearby.
“If somebody breaks out of a facility like a jail and causes harm, that harm is irreparable, and I think that’s the primary reason why these kinds of facilities are considered to be prohibited,” Benton said.
Hearings Examiner Joe Turner, a third-party official hired to conduct the hearing, said the use would only be prohibited if he agrees with Morasch’s argument regarding the facility’s definition.
“The uses are not prohibited. They just are unique and require additional review,” Turner said.
Both Benton and one appellant, Chris Clifford, took issue with the process as a whole. At the May 26 meeting, concerns were raised about a lack of public notice, though the county contended it went above what was required in state law.
Clifford noted he had been left off of the appellant list even though he appealed more than a month earlier, which he chalked up to an apparent expedition of the process. He added the types of individuals the state would admit, including sex offenders, seemed to change from the first hearing to the second.
“We went from absolute denial to the splitting of hairs in an awful fast turnover,” Clifford said.
He said those in the facility for competency restoration are “the most dangerous of the dangerous. They do not understand right or wrong.” Those undergoing the restoration would face a criminal trial when deemed fit to stand, Clifford said.
Christine Phillips, a planner with design firm BCRA for DSHS, noted the multitude of professional input the state received throughout the process. While those backing the project have provided a number of reports, she said there are no reports by licensed professionals that contradict DSHS’ argument that the project should continue.
“While we appreciate and want to respond to all the citizens’ comments, we do not see that they have met their required burden of proof in their appeals,” Phillips said.
Turner said he hopes to have a decision on the project by July 26.
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