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Connell House controversy leads to statewide talks

Chats - Leaders want to fine-tune process that allows state hospital patients in communities
by: , Cornelius City Manager Dave Waffle

Last May, the Washington County Board of Commissioners voted to award $206,389 in 'start-up' money to Luke-Dorf, Inc. to enable the mental-health non-profit to take the first steps toward building a new residential treatment center in Cornelius.

The vote that started the funding source for Connell House didn't attract much attention. Commissioner Andy Duyck told the News-Times that he didn't remember it coming up for debate.

But the anonymity of Connell House shattered on Dec. 28, when Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon issued notices to 1,300 Cornelius residents telling them that Jason Shipley, a man found 'guilty except for insanity' of the brutal sexual assault of a three-year-old, was living in the home.

In January, the city of Cornelius revoked the site's conditional use permit, forcing the non-profit to either appeal the decision or change the way the facility operates.

Luke-Dorf chose to appeal, and the Cornelius planning commission heard their case Tuesday night, after the News-Times deadline.

But city officials said Monday that regardless of the outcome Tuesday, the issues surrounding facilities like Connell house - and the specific land-use issues the city and Luke-Dorf are sparring over - won't go away.

State and local officials have been meeting over the past few months at the request of the governor's office to iron out the future of residential treatment homes, which the state has said will play a larger role in mental health treatment in the future.

'What's the nature of these facilities? How are they going to be introduced into communities?' Cornelius City Manager Dave Waffle asked.

Waffle said that concerns about the Cornelius facility have brought both state and local officials to the table and that everyone is paying more attention to how the siting process works.

That process is a complicated one. The state sends money to counties, which in turn hires contractors like Luke-Dorf to run facilities in cities within the county's borders. Each layer of government plays a role, but now, Waffle said, each level of government is paying more attention.

'The state's more alert to how they're introducing these facilities, and the cities are more alert to asking more questions,' Waffle said.

Gordon said that the state has pledged to notify law enforcement agencies when it moves criminally insane patients into their communities, but he would like to see notification happen before the decision has been made to site the patients.

'What we're looking for from the Sheriff's side is total upfront communication prior to the decision to release is made,' Gordon said.

Under the current rules, when a patient like Shipley is determined by a court to be guilty except for insanity, he's first sent to the Oregon State Hospital for treatment. If the Psychiatric Security Review Board, which oversees his care, deems him eligible for supervised release into the community, a hearing is held and the district attorney who prosecuted the case and the victim are notified.

Gordon would like law enforcement to be a party to that discussion. 'That's not resolved yet,' he said.

Gordon said that involving law enforcement earlier in the state process is on the agenda for an April meeting between state and local officials.

Luke-Dorf: what's next?

What is the planning commission deciding?

The Cornelius Planning Commission needs to decide whether city staff was correct in revoking Luke-Dorf's conditional use permit.

What is conditional use?

This permit allows property owners to do something on their property that would normally be disallowed by zoning regulations. In this case, since the Connell House is in a highway commercial zone, Luke-Dorf needed a conditional use permit to house people in the care home.

Why did the city revoke the permit?

The city argues that Luke-Dorf wasn't up-front in the permitting process about what kind of facility it was building. Instead of a 'transitional housing' facility, the city argues that Connell House is an institutional use. Luke-Dorf, however, says the nonprofit was very clear in the permitting process.

What can the planning commission vote to do?

The planning commission can either affirm the city's revocation, remand the decision back to staff (basically telling staffers to refine their staff report) or reinstate the permit. If the commission upholds the city's revocation, Luke-Dorf can appeal that decision to the Cornelius City Council. If the city council upholds the decision, Luke-Dorf can then appeal to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.