One of Washington’s first proposed campuses to regionalize psychiatric care ran into opposition Thursday night from its potential future neighbors.
In a white tent not far from the Vancouver farmland slated to be turned into a 48-bed campus, state officials outlined plans and listened to neighbors’ concerns over congested country roads and, in their view, danger.
“There’s a lot of unknowns we haven’t gotten answered,” said Tyler Castle, an owner of nearby property.
Three, 16,000-square-foot psychiatric facilities are proposed near Washington State University’s Vancouver campus. Each would house 16 beds, at least one of which would be operated by the state.
Construction hasn’t begun. The Washington Department of Social and Health Services must first get approval from a hearings examiner, who must decide whether or not the land – which is currently zoned for use as a business park – can become the psychiatric campus.
A hearing was slated for late November, but state officials said Thursday they are first addressing some construction questions raised by the county. State officials expressed optimism about getting approval, saying they aimed to break ground summer 2022, and open in 2024.
In the tent Thursday evening, neighbors to the property questioned the facility on several fronts. Castle worried about clogged roadways.
“It will be increased traffic. That’s a given,” Castle said. “Really, there are very few road improvements that can be done in that area because of the geology in that area. It’s just a poor decision to build it there. And I’m a community member who really believes we need a facility like this in the county.”
The campus is expected to employ roughly 100 people. Robert Hubenthal, assistant director of capital facilities, said he didn’t expect a lot of visitors driving to and from the site. He said the state is making road improvements.
Castle told OPB he worried about future expansion. The proposed campus covers about 12 acres, and the state owns another eight acres next door. Hubenthal said there are no plans currently to develop the neighboring land.
The campus is among the first facilities to be built as part of the state Department of Social and Health Services’ plan to regionalize psychiatric treatment for people experiencing mental health crises. State lawmakers carved out $37.7 million for the facility in May.
Historically, people whose psychiatric concerns have led a judge to deem them unfit to stand trial have been sent to one of Washington’s two state hospitals, in Pierce and Spokane counties. Health officials have advocated for smaller, more local facilities to help people stay close to home, making for a smoother reintegration when released.
Safety concerns for both patients and staff have plagued the state hospitals for years. In 2018, Western State Hospital failed a safety inspection by federal regulators and ultimately cost the state $53 million.
Another neighbor, Sharon Lueck, worried psychiatric patients could leave the facility and pose a danger. On the facility’s safety designs, Hubenthal said it would have “a number of measures in place so the right folks stay inside the building, and the folks that don’t belong in the building don’t come into the building.”
“I understand their concerns,” Hubenthal said. “It is presumptive on someone getting away… with the intent to do harm. I cannot guarantee that that will never happen, but only that we’ll design it as a secure facility. Staff will need to manage it as a secure facility. And there will need to be measures in place.”
The facility will house patients who are civilly committed, meaning a judge deemed they are a danger to themselves or others, but they are not facing criminal charges. Those facing criminal charges — “forensic patients” — will still remain at the state hospitals.
Jerri Clark, founder of Mothers of the Mentally Ill, who has become a prominent advocate for more care for behavioral health issues after her son developed a form of bipolar disorder in his late teens, said she considered neighbors’ concerns misplaced.
“We’ll have more homelessness, more visible illness everywhere if we don’t have appropriate facilities for people,” Clark said. “Fear is based in what you don’t understand. Someone who is seriously mentally ill is incredibly fragile. They’re in more danger than dangerous to someone else.”