Ardenwald rejects mental treatment facility

by: Eva Fitzsimons, The county-approved developers intended to use this property, at 2808 S.E. Balfour Street in Ardenwald, to build a 15-bed mental health residence.

The blue house is inconspicuous looking, located on a dead end street in a quiet part of Ardenwald. It is hard to imagine it as the center of a debate - or as a fifteen-bed mental health residence.

But, for a few days in November, outraged neighbors fought to keep the house at 2808 S.E. Balfour Street from becoming a home for the mentally ill. Clackamas County had already approved the use, and the issue appeared settled - until the City of Milwaukie stepped in and bought the house.

'We're pretty excited that we were able to address the community's concerns,' said Milwaukie Mayor Jim Bernard. The mayor said he was willing to work with the developer to put the mental health facility in what the community judged a more appropriate location.

The developer seeking to operate the site was Oregon Regional Behavioral Services (ORBS), a not-for-profit agency based in Medford, Oregon. ORBS operates other such sites throughout Oregon and Idaho. They have over ten facilities in operation or construction, including one already in Portland.

ORBS was looking to build a residential treatment facility in Clackamas County, where they already have a contract. Two other sites had previously been turned down - in Sandy and Oregon City - when the Ardenwald site was chosen.

The site would have served both acute patients, and those transitioning back into the community. Eight of the beds would probably have been reserved for people who'd faced criminal charges, said Jennifer Jones, executive assistant at ORBS.

The existing house on the site would have been torn down, and an 8,500 square foot building would have been erected in its place. There would have been room for fifteen residents, with twenty-four parking spaces and staff present all hours of the day. But it still qualified as a residence under housing laws.

Citizens at the November 13th Ardenwald-Johnson Creek neighborhood association meeting were worried that the facility would generate traffic, adding congestion to a quiet residential neighborhood. Many neighbors also voiced concerns that their property values would go down.

One of the biggest concerns, however, was the potential of people with a criminal history so close to so many children. Neighbors testified to the large number of children in the area. The property is less than one block from a planned city park, and not far from Ardenwald School, where the neighborhood association meeting took place.

'I'm really concerned about the safety issue,' said a said Bryan Door, a resident of Ardenwald. He pointed out that the community was given no answers on what type of crimes those eight of the proposed residents might have committed.

Other voices at the meeting raised questions of security - questions that the Clackamas County Commissioners had no answers for. No representatives from ORBS were present to answer the many questions citizens had about security, or about their potential new neighbors.

Perhaps it was the lack of communication that seemed to outrage the neighbors most of all. Since the Federal Fair Housing Act prevents discrimination against residents, not only were Ardenwald neighbors not allowed to have a say in the placement of the residence, they were not even told that such a facility might be moving in next door till the matter seemed settled.

'These people are disabled under the fair housing act,' said Jonathon Mantay, a Clackamas County Commissioner. ORBS cannot be denied based on neighborhood opposition, because a building housing up to 16 people qualifies as a residence. As long as they abide by building codes, it is actually illegal to tell neighbors that such a place is being built.

'We're not allowed to notify the neighborhood,' said Mayor Bernard, who took it upon himself to get the word out once he heard of the plan in a city council meeting, and who led the successful city effort to shortstop the site with a city purchase of the home.

'I wish that the organization had communicated with the citizens,' added Mayor Bernard.

Jennifer Jones, executive assistant to ORBS, said community education is important to the organization. After ORBS acquires a property, Jones said, they are proactive in notifying the neighbors of the project.

'It's in the residents' best interests to know [about the residence],' Jones said. She said that ORBS is very open to speaking with neighbors - once they are sure they will build in a certain spot.

This particular Ardenwald property was chosen because there is easy access to grocery stores and a bus line, and because it is very close to Providence Milwaukie Hospital. Jones emphasized that security is a priority to ORBS, and that there would have been staff present at all hours of the day and night.

Ardenwald is a unique neighborhood in that it spans both Multnomah and Clackamas Counties, bordering the Sellwood, Eastmoreland, Woodstock, and Brentwood-Darlington communities. It was ranked one of the top ten neighborhoods to live in by Portland Magazine in 2006.

'All of us here love our city,' said Macy Bishop, a resident of Ardenwald. Bishop grew up in Milwaukee and moved to Ardenwald with her husband and children. 'We're not going to allow this in our community,' added Bishop.

A few people at the November 13th meeting did come out in support of ORBS's plan, some of whom themselves had loved ones struggling with a mental illness. One called the opposition to the facility 'an unfounded fear', adding that in their view, people with mental illnesses are more likely to be the victims than perpetrators of crime.

The Pacific Gateway Hospital, a psychiatric hospital closed in 2001 after a highly-publicized police shooting, was located across the street from Sellwood Middle School. A neighbor in Ardenwald, who did not oppose the facility and who does not wish to be identified, said he lived beside the Sellwood hospital for many years.

'I used to sit on my front steps watching the kids beat on the windows [of the hospital] with chairs,' said the neighbor. Despite that, he said he always felt safe, and pointed out that property values in Sellwood actually went up during those years.

THE BEE learned that the owners of the house were not told what their house would become, only that it was being purchased by the county. And it was due to a lapsed license that the City of Milwaukie was able to make a bid on the house, which the current owners accepted, abruptly resolving the contentious issue.

'We're not in the real estate business,' said Bernard, adding that the house will probably be resold by the city. He acknowledged that buying the Balfour Street property doesn't mean that the developers can't just go buy a house somewhere else. For now, though, there will be no new mental health facility in Ardenwald.