Earlier this year, the Washington state Health Care Authority applied for a conditional-use permit to build a behavioral health facility north of Stanwood.
Then, controversy ensued.
In March, the project sparked more than 50 official public comments, most voicing their opposition. Snohomish County councilmember Nate Nehring, Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts and District 10 Rep. Greg Gilday also sent a letter to the HCA expressing reservations about the project. On June 22, an open house event at the Floyd Norgaard Cultural Center drew roughly 50 people who mostly expressed worries about the facility.
In the weeks since, the topic has remained at the forefront of community discussions on social media. A community group, The North Stanwood Concerned Citizens, formed to oppose the site. Group members have said they are concerned about how the facility could affect the neighborhood’s safety, traffic and property values. Others argue there are needs for more of these types of facilities, just not to be built in Stanwood.
Meanwhile, the facility — a 32-bed in-patient residential behavioral health facility on 15.5 acres owned by the Tulalip Tribes at 29919 80th Avenue NW — continues to advance through the permit process, which is expected to be heard soon by the Snohomish County’s hearing examiner.
Why is it being built?
The facility is part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s five-year plan to increase smaller community facilities for mental health treatment. According to the governor’s website, Inslee adopted the plan in 2018 with a goal of ending civil patient placements at large state hospitals by 2023. He cited overcrowding at large hospitals and the desire to allow patients to be close to their support systems and communities.
“(This is about) being able to create capacity to serve individuals from this community so that folks don’t have to travel to Tacoma area or Seattle area or other regions,” said Keri Waterland, the HCA’s assistant director for behavioral health and recovery. “This gives somebody an opportunity to get those high-quality services close to where they reside.”
Snohomish County is the third-most populous county in the state, according to the 2020 Census redistricting data. Panek has said there are an insufficient number of beds for the population, and this facility would help address that.
There are six available beds in Snohomish County through Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Panek said. Sixteen more are coming soon through Compass Health, and 16 beds would be made available through the Stanwood facility. In total, the number of beds in Snohomish County would rise from six to 38. Phase two of this facility would include 16 additional beds, increasing Stanwood’s total to 32 and Snohomish County’s to 54.
The Tulalip Tribes own the site and will build the facility if the permitting process goes through, Waterland said. However, the Health Care Authority will step in and complete the work once construction is done.
When asked why the Stanwood site was chosen for the facility, Keith Banes, senior project manager at the Wenaha Group — which is representing the Tulalip Tribes in this project — directed the Stanwood Camano news to the HCA’s frequently asked questions website. According to the website, Stanwood was chosen for the Snohomish County facility because it fit under the county code and best fit requirements of the 2020 sales tax-sharing agreement between the state and the Tulalip Tribes.
Who will it serve?
The need for mental health services is increasing nationwide. The percentage of adults with a mental illness who report unmet need for treatment has increased every year since 2011, according to Mental Health America, a national nonprofit organization that tracks behavioral health issues. In 2019, 24.7% of adults with a mental illness report an unmet need for treatment, according to the group.
“I think there are concerns by people (that the Stanwood) facility is going to be serving sex offenders,” said Kara Panek, HCA’s section manager for Adult and Involuntary Services. “That’s not what the purpose of this facility is.”
The average client has been detained by a crisis responder and has already gone to a hospital for treatment, she said. These treatments are for serious mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder or significant depression. If two weeks in the hospital is not enough, the beds in this facility are designed to give people an extra 90 to 180 days of treatment to get them back on their feet, she said.
“Yeah, it’s involuntary treatment, which means that people don’t necessarily have insight about the amount of help they need, or they’re just not able to understand that all the time,” Panek said. “As they get better, they do understand that, and they can transition back to the community – but it’s not people who have been charged with a crime.”
Treatments include medication management, rehabilitation and getting people used to independent living.
How safe will it be?
The Stanwood facility will be secured with a closed-in fence, keycards, codes, multiple doors and cameras, Panek said. According to blueprints on the Health Care Authority’s website, patients will be able to move freely within the building, but won’t leave the site until they are done with treatment.
All doors will be locked, and the outdoor area will be surrounded by 12-feet-long anti-climb walls. Vehicle entrances and exits will make it so that if one door opens, the next will be programmed to stay closed. The building is surrounded by rural farmland, a former Arabian horse farm that the Tulalip Tribes purchased in 2011.
“Unauthorized leave, it’s very rare — the times where it happens tends to be if somebody has been transported to the emergency room for evaluation, and there’s a lot going on, and they slip out the door,” Panek said. “It’s very rare that it happens in a facility like this.”
Panek also noted that most patients are victims of violence, not perpetrators.
“The lens to kind of look through is, this is about keeping patients safe,” Panek said. “This is about treatment and patients getting care and being safe because there was concern about them being safe.”
The facility also screens all possible patients to see if they are a good fit for the treatment, Waterland said. The screening helps with safety, as well.
“The goal is to get folks in who will be stable and who will benefit from therapeutic intervention,” Waterland said, listing examples such as therapy and medication management groups. “That screening is really going to be, ‘Who’s appropriate for the facility?’ And we know right now that an individual who may not be stable yet or acting out violently, they just simply would not benefit.”
Panek said the screening takes place at all of their facilities and veers toward the cautious side.
“We have contracted facilities across the state that do this care now — every facility will screen to see if they can meet the needs of an individual,” Panek said. “If there’s a concern about safety, to be honest, a lot of places tend to be cautious and they say no.”
The Health Care Authority applied for a conditional use permit on Jan. 31. The public was notified in early February, and a public comment period was held in March.
Now, Panek said, they are preparing for a meeting with Snohomish County’s hearing examiner. There is no specific date yet, but right now, they’re estimating that the meeting will be held in September or October.
When a date is announced, the public can send comments in through email or at a meeting.
The building is tentatively scheduled to open in 2024.