FOREST LAKE — More than a few unhappy citizens left dejected after the April 9 meeting of the Forest Lake City Council, where the possibility of establishing a psychiatric youth treatment facility was put to rest. The council voted 3-2 not to adopt a zoning amendment that would allow the construction of The Hills Youth and Family Services mental health services on a historic property off Highway 61.
Dozens of citizens spoke in support of the proposed project during the open forum portion of the meeting. Many had personal stories to share about children and relatives who would have benefited from such a facility, especially since they knew personally how hard it was to find residential psychiatric care in the region.
The text amendment would have altered one line of text in the city’s zoning code that stated that large residential licensed facilities serving more than 10 persons was only allowed in an existing single-family home.
The proposal came before the council once before, but council members felt that there were still a few questions that had not been answered. They directed city staff to research the potential impacts of the proposed change, which was presented to the Planning Commission a second time March 14. For the second time, the Planning Commission unanimously recommended the amendment for approval.
Most speakers at the April 9 meeting asked the council to follow suit, but one neighbor of the property expressed his opposition to the proposal, claiming that it would “open Pandora’s box” with regard to more development in the area.
The term came back during the council’s discussion, when Mayor Ben Winnick agreed.
“This opens it up to anything,” he said. “It could be a sex offender treatment facility. It could be anything. And that’s what zoning codes are for. I don’t support changing it.”
Councilwoman Mara Bain countered, explaining that the city would still have the power to accept or deny any proposal within the bounds of the conditional use criteria, providing the proper “belts and suspenders” needed to maintain control.
“We have the criteria today to exclude for those purposes if we felt we needed to,” Bain said.
Winnick and Councilman Ed Eigner both mentioned that there were other places within Forest Lake in which the facility could be built under current zoning definitions, but representatives from The Hills Youth and Family Services have made it clear through multiple meetings that their goal was to locate the facility within a residential district. They were especially interested in the property off Highway 61 because they wanted to preserve the historic stables and incorporate them into the facility with an equine therapy program.
This meeting was the first in which recently-appointed Blaine Backes was seated as a voting council member. He was sworn into office at the beginning of the evening. Backes read from a pre-written statement to deliver his remarks to the audience, explaining that he was still new to the council.
“If this vote were as simple as voting for the need for a mental health facility for youth, or if this type of facility should be welcomed into our community, it would be a 5-0 vote,” he said. “I think everyone knows someone who can benefit from a facility of this nature. But the decision before us is one of a zoning issue that will affect numerous neighborhoods, not just the one picked for this project. Had the project been fixated on a different parcel of land that was already zoned to accommodate such a facility, there wouldn’t be such a difficult decision at hand.”
Backes also brought up the looming Comprehensive Plan update, and said he wished he could see the issue tabled for a while so he had more time to consider it. He then stated that he would not support the amendment.
“It would be easy for me to walk in as a new seat and be everyone’s hero and say yes, and put that in there,” Backes said. “However, as I do my research and I do my discerning, I understand that there’s other principles that would have to violated in order to be that hero.”
Bain insisted that the council continue to discuss these concerns, explaining that her first instinct was also to reject the proposal when it was first presented to her.
“What I would encourage you to think about it, this is a residential facility, and the question that kept getting asked of me was, ‘Well, if it’s residential, where should it belong?’ In a residential district,” she said. “That’s how I got comfortable that this wasn’t an intentional omission of our code, but rather something that happens haphazardly as township code merged with city of Forest Lake code.”
Councilman Sam Husnik pointed out that the current draft of the Comprehensive Plan update would change the area in question to Mixed Use zoning, which would allow the construction of such a facility.
“Which means (The Hills Youth and Family Services) could go for a permit tomorrow,” Husnik said. “Why we are arguing about this is beyond me.”
Eigner said that in his experience, he’d noticed that treatment facilities, such as PrairieCare in Brooklyn Park, seem to fit well in commercial districts.
“Why not, if it can locate in Forest Lake without this, why not some other place?” he said. He pointed out that Forest Lake already has many tax-exempt properties that are great for citizens, but do not create revenue for the city. He said he does not want the city to continue down that path.
Backes, Eigner and Winnick voted against the proposed amendment, while Bain and Husnik voted to approve. Comments of disapproval from the audience filled the room.
“We’ll remember in November,” said one unhappy voter.
The Forest Lake City Council next meets at 7 p.m. Monday, May 14, at 1408 Lake St. S., Forest Lake.
Jackie Bussjaeger is the editor of the Forest Lake and St. Croix Valley Lowdown, and can be reached at 651-407-1229 or email@example.com.