No pitchforks, but lots of shouts as residents reject Woodmont recovery center
by Jack Mayne
Woodmont area residents made it clear Tuesday night during a long and loud hearing that they were furious about a plan to build a drug, alcohol and mental health treatment center in their neighborhood along Pacific Coast Highway in south Des Moines.
At the Woodmont Elementary School Tuesday night (Aug. 18) there were only rare comments in favor of Valley Cities Counseling and Consultation of Kent plan to build a 19,665 square foot mental health evaluation and treatment facility with 24 beds, a 25,340 square foot detoxification facility with 40 beds, along with an office building, a dispensary clinic, and meeting facility at 26915 Pacific Highway South.
There were derisive laughter, shouts, calls to respect opposing comments followed by loud rounds of applause and even boos as they condemned construction that has already been approved by a Des Moines-hired hearing examiner.
In April a hearing examiner held a public hearing, then approved a conditional use permit “to allow phased construction of a medical and mental health recovery campus,” but added some conditions the developer must meet.
If Valley Cities fulfills the conditions laid down by the hearing examiner and gets necessary city permits (conditions are in our Waterland Blog story dated Aug. 17 here), the facility will be built.
About the only thing that could foil the developer is a successful lawsuit, a doubtful potential because of past court decisions.
One big problem has cropped up and that is the fact the city only alerted people 600 feet from the development site. When residents heard that Tuesday night, there were loud shouts and angry, some unprintable, comments.
City Manager Tony Piasecki admitted to the crowd that maybe many more people should have been alerted, even though 17 close neighbors did attend and comment during the April session. The hearing examiner – because of a law that says “essential public facilities” must be allowed regardless of local zoning – disregarded their comments.
Des Moines Mayor Dave Kaplan went even further in a Facebook comment Wednesday.
“The City screwed up,” Kaplan wrote. “With such a large project, notice should have gone out citywide. We own that and will change that process.
“I know that’s little consolation for those who don’t want the facility, though even protests that would have been registered back in March/April would not have changed the outcome. The law was on the applicant’s side. That is why the good neighbor agreement needs community input.”
Nearly bankrupt city
At the calm and respectful beginning of the Tuesday night meeting, April Chavarria said she had asked for the meeting “for a chance for us to have our voices heard, our concerns heard.”
Chavarria asked the standing room audience of over 200 at the Woodmont Elementary School to be respectful of both sides of the issue attending the meeting, adding “We are still neighbors.”
Then she turned it over to “one of our neighbors.”
Candace Urquhart said people have worked hard to alert the citizens of Des Moines “that were in the dark about decision that the city had made for us. Tonight’s meeting is about hearing from our citizens.”
She said Des Moines is “nearly bankrupt and is severely understaffed at all levels, most importantly, our police department which currently can’t contain the crime we have.”
“Des Moines has done its fair share to support King County and its social services by taking on the jail, the newly developed Des Moines Section 8 housing,” the medical center and the largest marijuana dispensary between Seattle and Tacoma.
“Bottom line, we cannot give this project the support it needs for its patients, our children and our community,” Urquhart said.
“It is possible that there has never been a rehabilitation center this size in our county before. This is too great of a social experiment to test on our bankrupt city. The unknown combination of a marijuana dispensary, a methadone clinic and the drug and prostitute-infested Pacific Highway could devastate this area.”
No due diligence
“Ultimately, we do not believe the city did not do due diligence by including its citizens on a decision that could change the face of our city,” Urquhart told the audience. “Our city should have taken the time and great pains to study other facilities, both nationally and locally, in order to identify best practices.”
“All the information is needed to make truly educated decision,” Urquhart said. “We look forward to this happening with full transparency from citizens from Des Moines, Federal Way and Kent because we all will be … affected.”
She suggested a 120-day moratorium on he project “until these reports and studies are completed to the satisfaction of the citizens of Des Moines and the bordering communities.”
Developer defends plan
Ken Taylor, the chief executive officer of Valley Cities Counseling and Consultation, headquartered in Kent, said he wished there were “thousands of meetings like this around the country” because there are tens of thousands of people with mental health and substance abuse issues.
“Most of us, if we are honest, know somebody in our family who has experienced one or both or maybe we have even experienced ourself. They’re not going anywhere, they are here, they are at the library, they are up and down Pacific Highway as we speak. Valley Cities has been here for 50 years. When Woodmont Recovery campus opens we will be at our 10th location.”
Taylor said the company wants to create “a place where they can get all the services they need at one place. We have enough money to only build one building and that is the evaluation treatment center” in Des Moines.
Valley Cities is a non-profit and has received money from King County to help with startup and capital costs of the facility, as well as a $5 million grant from the state of Washington for the center and improvements to the Des Moines site.
He said he was aware of concern over the dispensary because people could “potentially” get methadone there, adding, “if the dispensary is ever built, one of our partner agencies for treatment services would operate” it as they do others in the county.
“Whether or not we want to admit it, we have a heroin epidemic … in King County,” Taylor said, “we have more than a person a day dying of heroin overdose.”
If the project is fully built at the Pacific Highway site, there will be about 250 employees and it will be an economic gain for the area. The staff will live, work and spend money in the Des Moines area, he said.
Will provide security
Taylor also said he was happy to negotiate with the neighbors, with the city or county on how the organization will respond to emergencies, how they will provide security and how they will deal with law enforcement and ordinances.
He said they scoured the county and found only two sites, this one and one that was sold to another buyer in Auburn. If the facility is not here, there just will be no treatment services available in south King County.
Jim Vollendorf, King County director of mental health and chemical abuse division, said, “we want this project to be a good neighbor.” He said there are 500 area people going every day to downtown Seattle for treatment because there is no treatment for them in south King County.
Navos does operate in West Seattle and in Burien, but that is all.
The courts had ruled it is unconstitutional not to have facilities to treat these people, Vollendorf said.
Can’t keep people safe
One resident, who said he was trained in abuse counseling, told the hearing that it only takes one facility patient to cause problems.
“How in the hell are you going to ensure that nobody is going to break out? This is almost impossible. How can you be sure that everybody is going to be safe?”
Another person wanted to know how Valley Services was going to protect his family and the others in the 17th Place South area. “I want to know how you are going to protect my family and the families of others?”
A woman said, “There is a need for a treatment center, we have a huge problem with drug addiction, there is no question about it,” she said. “Putting sober ones next door to addicts is insanity.
“They are addicts, they have problems; they poop in public because they are addicts. We will need patrol cars up and down our street all day long.”
Then, a woman who worked at a methadone clinic said people were “far worse than you understand,” committing crimes and hurting people. Heroin addicts will do almost anything for their fix.
“Community crime here is not going to go away, it is going to get worse,” the woman said. “Lock your windows, lock you homes. Don’t carry your purse.”
The hall filled with shouts and laughter.
Another person said she had a PhD degree and “I am not stupid,” but she is an addict. “I not an addict to throw needles on the floor. They are already there.”
“They didn’t get their by themselves.”
The shouts and catcalls caused Mayor Dave Kaplan to urge calm and that everyone would get a chance.
Another said, “If we want them to listen to us, we need to listen to them. We don’t have to agree.”
Then a woman got applause when she said she was an addict but there were no beds in western Washington to take her.
“I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for places like this.”
A father of three got hearty applause when he said there were other places for such a facility.
Then today, Mayor Kaplan said he was listening to the 200-plus people at the meeting.
“I was listening to everything each person had to say. It did register with me. I appreciate and understand the concerns that were expressed, even as I’m frustrated that people think we elected officials have unlimited powers in all circumstances.”
Here are photos taken by Scott Schaefer at the event (click images to see larger versions/slideshow):