Residents flock to public hearing to say they should have been told that facility housed sex offenders

Cornelius officials are poised to revoke the permit allowing a controversial mental health treatment facility to operate inside the city.

Unless Luke-Dorf, Inc. changes the way it operates its group home on 29th Avenue, Cornelius will likely revoke the agency's conditional use permit on Friday, city officials said. That would give the Tigard-based nonprofit 10 days to appeal the decision to the city planning commission.

The city's ultimatum is the latest development in a tempest that blew up on Dec. 28, when Washington County Sheriff Rob Gordon notified 1,300 residents living near the facility that it housed three sex offenders, as well as others who had been deemed criminally insane.

Howard Spanbock, Luke-Dorf executive director, said Tuesday that Luke-Dorf was honest with the city when it applied for the permit.

'We respectfully disagree as an agency with the assertion that the City of Cornelius is making that it was presented as something that it really is not,' Spanbock said.

Spanbock said he is hopeful that he will be able to ease concerns of the city staffers and residents.

That seemed unlikely last Thursday evening, when more than 200 residents peppered elected officials and state employees about the Cornelius facility, known as the Connell House, at a meeting called by Gordon.

During more than two hours of comments, residents said they were angry that three of the Connell House's 12 beds are occupied by registered sex offenders.

The speakers were also puzzled as to why Gordon became the point man for the controversy surrounding the house and wondered where Cornelius officials were in the process.

But, in fact, Cornelius city employees from the building inspector to the police chief have been gathering information on the site since Luke-Dorf began renovating the facility located at 117 N. 29th Ave. last summer.

City officials say that during the city's review process, Luke-Dorf didn't make it clear that the house would be a 'secure residential treatment facility.'

Instead, Luke-Dorf's written materials described the planned use as similar to an Alzheimer's group home that operated at the same location in the late 1990s.

The difference between how the state defines group homes and secure treatment facilities is key to the city's case for revoking the group's permit. Group homes are generally defined as 24-hour care facilities for developmentally disabled individuals or those who have complex medical needs (like those with Alzheimer's).

The Luke-Dorf facility, however, houses individuals who are on conditional release from the Oregon State Hospital, all of whom were found guilty 'except for insanity' of crimes ranging from attempted murder and arson to rape. Those releases are granted by the state Psychiatric Security Review Board.

Paul Rubenstein, Cornelius police chief, said he sat in on the pre-application hearing for the Connell House, but was never given the impression that the home would house violent offenders granted release from the state hospital.

'In the process they talked about the changes that they wanted to make to the facility and they said they wanted it to be similar to their other transitional houses,' Rubenstein said.

'At no point in time was there any conversation about a secured residential care facility,' Rubenstein said.

Rubenstein said he asked Luke-Dorf if any of the residents would have criminal records and was told 'sure.' Rubenstein said that's not uncommon for care facilities that help people with drug, alcohol or behavioral problems.

'How this question was answered led me to believe it would be like any of their other facilities in the county,' Rubenstein said.

Luke-Dorf operates eight other unsecured residential treatment facilities and homes in Beaverton, Tigard, Portland and Gresham. The Connell House is the group's first secure facility.

It's also the first facility of its kind in Washington County.

But Spanbock said that the group made it clear in a March meeting with the Cornelius Planning Commission that the facility would be locked and house patients from the state mental hospital.

According to minutes from the March 27 meeting, Mona Knapp, director of client services for Luke-Dorf said that the patients in the facility would be escorted by staff at all times and that they all would likely have 'significant problems.'

The minutes indicate that Larry Gerky, who lives near the facility, raised the concern that a school bus stop was outside and worried that a patient could go 'berserk.'

According to the minutes, Knapp didn't respond directly to Gerky's concerns, but said later on that if patients were to wander off, staff would respond immediately.

The planning commission eventually voted 4-1 to convert the former Alzheimer's facility into a transitional housing facility with Commissioner Bruce Becking opposing the measure.

Spanbock said that the planning commission knew what it was approving.

'It was made clear that this was going to be a locked facility. They were part of the whole process so I'm a little bit curious as to why this has come up,' he said.

On June 29, Luke-Dorf posted a help wanted ad on to staff the Connell House. In it, the group referred to the Connell House as 'a Secure Residential Treatment Facility in Cornelius, Oregon serving adults with severe and persistent mental illness.'

Two days later, Luke-Dorf signed a contract with Washington County to operate a 'secure residential treatment facility.' The county serves as a conduit for the $1.7 million in annual state and federal funding which pays for the house.

The county contract describes the residents as 'priority 1 mentally and emotionally disturbed persons,' meaning that without treatment there would be a risk of hospitalization.

Still, Rubenstein said he had no indication that the residents would have histories of violent crimes.

So, when he heard from a handful of residents that the Connell House would be housing sex offenders, he dismissed it as rumor.

It wasn't until August, when Connell House was set to open, that Rubenstein received a letter from Washington County District Attorney Robert Hermann informing him that Matthew Shipley, who was arrested in 1988 for brutally assaulting a three-year-old girl in Tualatin, was in the house.

Rubenstein approached Luke-Dorf about limiting the walks that residents were allowed to take in the community. Luke-Dorf agreed to adopt that practice through the end of the year, but later began allowing residents to walk to a nearby convenience store.

That's why, just before the New Year's holiday weekend, Gordon notified residents that the house was home to three predatory sex offenders, including Shipley.

Gordon's move sidestepped state officials who were reluctant to inform neighbors of the presence of the sex offenders.

The sheriff said last Thursday that serious changes need to be made to state laws that regulate the siting of such facilities.

'This particular home is misplaced and misguided and the wrong kind of people are living in this neighborhood,' Gordon said.

Gordon lives in unincorporated Washington County not far from the house, but Dave Thompson, sheriff's office spokesman, said that the sheriff's proximity to the house didn't influence his decision to alert neighbors.

'It wouldn't have mattered what Washington County neighborhood it was in,' Thompson said. 'He would have had the same reaction to it.'

A trio of state lawmakers in attendance at last week's meeting pledged to the roiled crowd that they would take the issue up in force during the 2009 l egislative session.

'Let's work together to change the law,' said state Sen. Bruce Starr, who was joined by Reps. Chuck Riley and Linda Flores.

Bob Nikkel, who administers the office of mental health and addiction services for the state, said siting decisions were based on established planning rules.

He assured the crowd that those released from the Oregon State Hospital into community homes like the one in Cornelius go through a rigorous determination by a state board before they are released.

Nikkel said he understands residents' concerns. When Cornelius residents asked him where he lives, he said his home is near a residential treatment facility for former state hospital patients.

'I live next to a facility and have grandkids that come over quite often,' he said.

But that didn't calm the nerves of neighbors, who called on Rubenstein to do all he could to shut down the facility.

Rubenstein responded by saying that if the city didn't carefully negotiate the law, it could wind up in a protracted and expensive legal fight.

The city's next step in that process is to revoke Luke-Dorf's conditional use permit.

But even that move, if taken, won't result in the kind of quick resolution some neighbors are seeking.

If the planning commission backs up the revocation, an appeal can be made to the city council. If the city council backs up the revocation, Luke-Dorf would have 30 days to shut down the facility.

To read a story about last Thursday's meeting and reader comments about the controversy go to Cornelius residents fume over treatment home for criminally insane

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