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Judge rules in DESC’s favor on crisis diversion site

Proposed site of DESC's Crisis Diversion Center at 1600 S. Lane. The street rises east past family residences. Half a block to the west is busy S. Jackson Street. Credit: Judy Lightfoot

A judge has ruled in favor of a new center that supporters say can be crucial to helping nonviolent individuals in crisis over mental health or addiction issues. 

In a ruling filed last week, King County Superior Court Judge Susan Craighead rejected arguments that the planned DESC Crisis Solutions Center (CSC) is a a jail or work-release facility. Her ruling affirmed that it should be treated as a hospital for land-use purposes under a broad definition in the city land use code. The CSC program can therefore be legally housed on the property that DESC (Downtown Emergency Services Center) leased more than a year ago on S. Lane Street in the Jackson Place neighborhood.

CSC is a planned facility where first responders throughout King County can bring nonviolent individuals who are in crisis because of mental illness or drug problems for treatment, in cases where other appropriate care options are unavailable. DESC is in charge of the program.

Already funded by the MIDD (Mental Illness and Drug Dependency) plan, the facility will offer more effective, more economical services than a hospital emergency room or jail, currently the default destinations for homeless and otherwise vulnerable persons experiencing a psychiatric or addiction-related emergency. CSC patients will be stabilized and treated for up to two weeks in the secure building and then referred to community housing and health care providers for longer-term solutions.

The legal contest between DESC and a group of neighbors, the Jackson Place Alliance for Equity (JPAE), was outlined last month in a Crosscut story. The group had filed a petition in early October to block the opening of the facility, arguing that city land-use regulations prohibited locating the proposed center in the area selected — a commercial zone bordering on a multi-family residential zone.

First, JPAE challenged the City of Seatte's issuance of a building permit to remodel the CSC facility. JPAE said that the CSC would be part of the criminal justice system, not the medical treatment system, and thus could not legally be sited at 1600 S. Lane.

The opponents also argued against two code interpretations issued by the Department of Planning and Development (DPD). JPAE asserted that DESC should not be permitted to work around an ambiguity in the zoning (a 15-foot section of the 80-foot long building extends into the residential zone) by means of its stated plan to wall off the section and use it as an emergency exit corridor separate from facility services. JPAE called the work-around solution a “contrivance” made in order to avoid a review in accordance with the State Environmental Protection Act (SEPA). Second, in the absence of a prior SEPA review, the DPD permit was wrongly issued.

Judge Craighead ruled against JPAE on all counts, writing that the issuance of the building permit and the code interpretations were not in error. She framed her ruling with statistics on the heavy, inappropriate use of hospitals and the criminal justice system for nonviolent persons who are sick and who lack resources for proper medical care, and acknowledged the appropriateness of the city’s determination to create alternatives.

“The costs — both in dollars and in human misery — of a system that does not adequately treat people with mental illness are enormous,” wrote the judge. Summarizing the history of steps taken by different stakeholders in the project and in the Jackson Place community, and citing land-use case law for each of JPAE’s contentions, she denied the group's challenge.

After the judge issued a letter opinion on Jan. 9, DESC executive director Bill Hobson requested permission from the county to proceed with construction. The project has budgeted about $2 million for upgrades to the building, which last housed a wholesale pharmaceutical business, in order to meet Department of Health standards for licensed medical facilities, he said. King County risk managers are considering the advisability of moving forward now, when opponents have a right of appeal and the outcome of an appeal could halt the project again.

But the financial risks of moving quickly must be weighed against estimates of the cost to taxpayers of keeping the project on hold, Hobson said, referring to calculations from Amnon Shoenfeld, King County mental health and chemical dependency services director (printed in the Crosscut story sidebar). “That number has to be factored in,” Hobson said. “The delay is costing taxpayers about $20,000 a day.” Meanwhile, “there's no legal restraint on going forward. The judge vacated [JPAE's] petition, I have a business permit, a contractor selected — the ball is really in the county’s court.”

King County's department of community and human services is working with the office of the prosecuting attorney on next steps, according to Shoenfeld. “We hope to have a decision soon that will enable DESC to proceed with remodeling.” Judge Craighead's final order was officially entered early last week, giving opponents a right of appeal that will extend into late February. "What might possibly happen in terms of appeals [or] injunctions” is now being sorted out, Shoenfeld said.

The project is already about a year behind schedule, said Shoenfeld. “We have a huge need for this. We have over 30 people boarding in emergency rooms right now. They’ve been involuntarily committed by mental health professionals, but there are no hospital beds to move them into.” CSC will help solve such problems of costly but inappropriate treatment, he said. (The facility will have 39 beds.)

Asked about the judge's ruling earlier this month, JPAE wrote in an email that the group “is currently in the process of studying the decision and considering all available options. We, therefore, cannot comment further until the process is completed.”

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