That no decisions would be made regarding a the placement of a proposed residential psychiatric facility on South Tower Avenue near Centralia Christian School did not stop dozens of concerned residents from making the Centralia City Council meeting on Tuesday a standing-room only affair.
“If this moved in next to me, I have to admit, I might sell my house and move somewhere else,” said Jennifer Caserta, a local pediatrician. “But there are people who don’t have that privilege. So I would like to invite you to increase your consideration of vulnerable populations we are protecting. Not just children, but school bus routes and low-income housing, places where there are disabled adults, because those persons might not have a choice of moving away from an unsavory neighbor.”
Those who arrived within a few minutes of the 7 p.m. start time were forced to stand in the lobby of City Hall and watch through the glass walls of the council chambers. Councilors approved a motion made by Peter Abbarno to move a public hearing on Interim Zoning Ordinance 2428 — which adds sections to city codes governing residential care facilities — up ahead of nearly everything on the meeting agenda so citizens wouldn’t have to wait to say their piece.
The council passed the interim ordinance amending city codes governing special use permits and codifying the definition of an Essential Public Facility in April after receiving an inquiry from Noble Healthcare, LLC which wants to operate an Enhanced Services Facility, a residential location staffed by health professionals for persons deemed capable of functioning outside of state psychiatric facilities such as Western State Hospital, on the old Sandra Care property at 1215 S. Tower Ave.
Special use permits are required for a businesses to locate in an area with a land use designation that doesn’t strictly match its purpose. Examples of such entities include, but are not limited to, residential care service providers, cemeteries, sports arenas, police stations and bus terminals.
The state has licensed four ESFs in recent years to house people who would still require individualized mental health care and supervision outside of a secured hospital setting. While tightly regulated by state laws, persons with a history of felony offenses, assaultive behaviors, cognitive impairment are among those eligible to live in such a location.
Every public speaker carried a similar message to the podium of support for the overall purpose of an Enhanced Service Facility, but staunch opposition to one operating in their neighborhoods.
“I believe these facilities pose far too much potential for danger and would be significantly detrimental to the health and safety of communities for them to be sited in residential districts,” said Centralia resident Laura Price.
Though the hearing was in no way about Noble Healthcare, which has submitted its application for a special use permit for city approval, most everyone in attendance Tuesday expressed their desire for the city to amend the interim ordinance in such a way to prohibit an ESF from being close to a school if not away from residential or commercial areas all together.
Ann Stout, principal of Centralia Christian School stated her agreement with other speakers who raised concerns about public safety. She also thanked the council for not allowing retail marijuana outlets to operate in residential neighborhoods.
Hillary Fazzari, development officer for Centralia Christian School, said prior to Stout’s testimony that while the school supports persons receiving needed care, elementary school children already face enough danger in today’s world.
“As principal, I take it as a solemn responsibility to keep my students and staff safe,” Stout said. “…We ask that (the city council) do all you can to keep ESFs, the ones proposed as well as ones in the future, a safe distance from our schools and playgrounds.”
It is not possible for the city council to force Noble Healthcare to comply with restrictions not already contained within the interim ordinance and other sections of city code. City Attorney Shannon Murphy-Olson made it clear as she spoke prior to the public comment portion of the hearing that any code changes adopted by the council at future meetings would not be retroactive.
Noble Healthcare’s in-progress application for the special use permit is grandfathered under the terms of the interim ordinance, which does not include distance requirements other than a minimum of one-fourth of one mile between residential care facilities or adult family homes. Future applicants may be subject to more stringent requirements such as location-based restrictions if the city council adds them to the ordinance prior to its expiration later this year.
Because Enhanced Services Facilities are considered Essential Public Facilities under state law, the city cannot outright ban them from operating within its boundaries. Citizens will have the ability to speak directly to the application for a special use permit by Noble Healthcare during a hearing at 6 p.m. June 12 presided over by Hearings Examiner James Buzzard, who will have the authority to grant the special use permit as proposed or with conditions made available within the parameters of Ordinance 2428 as well as other existing city does.
“The proposed project is actually in the floodplain,” said Community Development Director Emil Pierson. “(Buzzard) could actually place a condition on the facility that they have to make it flood-proof, or something like that. Or, that they’re required to have outdoor security cameras outside the whole place. He can look at all sorts of conditions to make it safe for people around the facility.”
One particularly open-ended provision of code 20.66 gives an enforcing officer, such as a hearings examiner, or the site plan review committee the authority to “alter or vary the design of the district for a special use when such alteration or variation is found to be reasonable to protect adjacent properties or the health or general welfare of the community.”
As the city official who will deliver a report of city staff findings and recommendations to the hearings examiner prior to June 12, Pierson said he expects items such as security cameras to be included in that document, but that Buzzard will have a wide berth to consider which conditions to place on the special use permit, should it be approved.
“I think there has to be a rational nexus to whatever conditions he places on the facility,” Pierson said.
Absent an outright denial of the special use permit, citizen pressure has played a role in Noble Healthcare walking away from other proposed ESF sites in Washington. Hundreds of Burien residents voiced their objections during a marathon hearing in January, according to video published by the B-Town Blog, after which the project fell through.
“I hope just as many people come to the (June 12) hearing,” Councilor Sue Luond said following the council meeting. “What people brought tonight were a lot of excellent comments. In the future, I hope we can work on a tighter ordinance.”