On Feb. 26, the Forest Lake City Council extended the city's consideration of zoning text amendments that would help clear the way for a proposed residential treatment center at the site of Shadow Creek Stables, but the project's progenitor has doubts about the council's sincerity.
The Feb. 26 conversation was an extension of a council discussion from Feb. 12 on whether or not to approve zoning amendments for multifamily districts that would allow residential treatment facilities with a conditional use permit as a non-accessory use not restricted to a single-family building. Under the current proposal, the 60-bed juvenile psychiatric residential treatment facility, or PRTF, to be operated in Forest Lake by The Hills Youth and Family Services would be located in a multifamily district. Large residential treatment facilities are already allowed with conditional use permits in several other zoning districts in the city, including some, like industrial, that THYFS representatives suggested are less compatible with such facilities than multifamily would be. More information on the initial Feb. 12 discussion can be found in the Feb. 22 story “Council to discuss residential treatment facility” or online at tinyurl.com/yb2fn9ed.
In the intervening two weeks between the meetings, the council's decision was subject to increased media scrutiny, including a National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota press release that alleged that the city was “poised to vote against the development” of the facility. The Feb. 26 meeting was packed, with close to 100 people on hand to weigh in and hear what the council had to say about the zoning amendments.
Ultimately, the council voted 4-1 to send city staff back to the Forest Lake Planning Commission with analysis about how the amendments would affect other multifamily districts in the city and with information about whether an overlay district would be a good fit for the site. However, after the decision, THYFS CEO Jeff Bradt said he doubted the council's commitment to finding a way to make the project work in the city.
“Right now, I can't believe they're sincere,” he said.
Throughout the audience comments during the open forum and a public hearing, Mayor Ben Winnick attempted to steer remarks away from the quality of THYFS or psychiatric residential treatment facilities in general to what he said was the issue at hand: the pros and cons of the zoning amendments. However, the majority of speakers didn't buy the distinction, pointing out that if the city denied the amendments, it would effectively eliminate the Shadow Creek location as a viable site for the PRTF.
““If the zoning is turned down, the facility can't move forward,” said Connie Hayes, superintendent for Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916, which would provide special education services to a Forest Lake PRTF.
Speakers from the audience included such diverse speakers as planning commissioners, interested residents, NAMI Minnesota Executive Director Sue Abderholden and current Shadow Creek co-owner Ron Moore (the business has announced it plans to stay open regardless of what happens with the PRTF. Some shared personal stories of loved ones who they believed would have been helped by a PRTF, which is a new kind of treatment facility in Minnesota commissioned by 2015 state legislation. Sharon Pearson of Wyoming talked about her daughter receiving a traumatic brain injury in a car crash and being helped by equine therapy at Shadow Creek, pointing out that the kids age 6 to 17 that would be served by the PRTF would also include people with neurological disorders due to physical injuries or ailments.
“She would be benefited from a facility like this,” Pearson said of her daughter. “It's not just for mental illness.”
Others argued that the amendment was beneficial zoning or that the change was worth it simply to allow THYFS to come to town.
In addition to filling a gap in care for children with mental illness, Forest Lake Area School Board Member Karen Morehead said, “This is an opportunity for our [community] to get the proper kind of jobs, employment, people to live here, something that you've been thinking about and talking about.”
Most were in favor of the zoning amendments, with the exception of regular council attendees Elvin Norby and Ron Schaffer and Planning Commissioner Eric Langness, the latter of whom said he was in favor of the project but added that when he voted to recommend the amendments to the council, he expected that the council would provide additional direction on the amendments and refer them back to the commission.
“There was relatively little discussion on this topic [at the Planning Commission level],” he said.
After a lengthy period of public comment, the council weighed in with their thoughts. Winnick and Councilman Ed Eigner said they were concerned about unintended consequences to other multifamily districts in the city, with Winnick in particular expressing frustration that staff did not have more information about the amendments' potential butterfly effects. The pair had questions about how the amendments would potentially affect the future availability of low income housing in the city and what kinds of structures are currently located in the other multifamily districts. They also wanted to know about the viability of implementing an overlay district that would only allow a treatment facility at that particular site. An overlay district is a district placed atop an existing zoning district that establishes additional criteria for land use in that area.
“How can we get to this point without knowing the effects [on] these other areas of our community?” Winnick asked.
Councilman Sam Husnik, however, said that the city could miss a “golden opportunity” by letting the PRTF slip away, and he rejected the idea that there were a host of unknowns about how the amendment would affect other multifamily districts.
“I think we've got a fairly good idea what it's going to do,” Husnik said. “It will open up any one of those [multifamily] zones for exactly that same type of thing, and each one of them [would only be approved] under a conditional use.”
Councilwoman Mara Bain and Councilman Michael Freer approached the topic from a different angle, debating how the amendment proposal fit into the city's criteria for evaluating such requests. Though she had initially expressed uncertainty about the zoning change on Feb. 12, at the Feb. 26 meeting Bain argued that the request was worthy of city approval because it offered public benefit, reduced the hardship on the applicant, didn't create nonconformities in zoning rules and was consistent with the current version of the comprehensive plan, among other criteria.
“We do have criteria in front of us, and back to that model, ... I don't see a reason to not pass the zoning amendment,” she said.
However, Freer stated that the criteria did not suggest a clean argument for approval. Among other objections to Bain's points, he offered a critique of the idea that the zoning amendments were in line with the comprehensive plan.
“If the comprehensive plan was consistent with [the preferred zoning], they [THYFS and developer Kraus-Anderson] wouldn't be having to even come here to ask for a zoning text amendment,” he said.
The council voted 4-1 to refer city staff back to the Planning Commission with more details. Bain and Husnik voted in favor because they did not want to reject the zoning amendments outright, while Freer voted against because he felt it would be quicker and more efficient to reject the amendments at the meeting and then bring them up again later in the spring when the city gets a draft of its updated comprehensive plan.
Bradt told local media he was very disappointed in the evening's discussion, adding that he believed the vote was a means of smoke and mirrors to mask the council's distaste for locating a mental health facility in Forest Lake.
“I really think that was a pretext,” he said.
He said that THYFS will take some time to “digest” the council's decision and then likely begin a dual track location hunt, continuing to work with the city on the Shadow Creek site while also talking with other communities in the northeast metro that may be amenable to finding a place for the PRTF to call home. He said Forest Lake is still the organization's preferred location and that if the group believes the city to be sincere about its interest in the PRTF, it will continue to pursue a building in the currently-proposed location.
“It would be silly to look for another parcel in Forest Lake,” he said.