Tacoma psychiatric hospital approval could be delayed over land-use complications

A proposed 105-bed behavioral health hospital in Tacoma to be operated by Signature Healthcare Services of Corona, California, is awaiting final rezoning and permit approvals from the city.

It might take awhile.

The Tacoma Behavioral Healthcare Hospital had a “decision pending” notification on the city’s permit listings page online Friday, and it could take longer than usual for Hearing Examiner Jeff Capell to make a determination, given rezoning and conditional-use permit requirements.

Capell presided over a lengthy public hearing July 18 where both land-use and safety questions from neighbors dominated the discussion.

William Lynn, legal counsel for the applicant, said at the hearing: “There is a clear need for this project. That’s not just anecdotal. It’s been established to the satisfaction of the state.

“Fears cannot be allowed to override the land-use process.”

The land-use applications include:

Rezoning from general neighborhood commercial district and transitional district designations to low density multiple family dwelling district.

A conditional-use permit to allow a hospital in the low density multiple family district.

A variance to allow a portion of the parking lot in front of the building facing South 19th Street.

A critical areas verification permit.

The property, on the south side of South 19th Street at South Proctor Street, is just a few blocks west of the new Wellfound Behavioral Health Hospital, which opened May 7.

Capell noted at the hearing that nearly 700 pages of information and 18 exhibits already had been filed in regard to Signature’s case.

That level of complexity is a result of the permits that, in varying manners, are tied to the rezoning decision. That decision ultimately is up to the City Council after Capell offers a written recommendation.

The hearing examiner alone is tasked with providing a written decision for the other associated land-use applications.

Wellfound did not have to clear nearly as many hurdles to win its construction approval. The Wellfound site already was on MultiCare property, so the project did not face a land-use review as in Signature’s case.

Signature currently operates 16 facilities in six states, and earlier competed with MultiCare and CHI Franciscan for a Certificate of Need from the state of Washington for a new behavioral health hospital in Tacoma. The two local health systems had formed a partnership alliance for the project and ultimately were issued the certificate.

After challenging that decision in court, Signature last year settled with the state, MultiCare and CHI Franciscan to move forward with its own project.

In addition to all of the land-use reviews, the project has faced concerns over safety and other issues. Those concerns became a focal point of the July 18 hearing after a preliminary report from the city’s planning staff.

According to the staff report, “By far, the most vocal and numerous concerns expressed are that the behavioral hospital will pose a public health and safety risk to those who live, work, play, go to school, and are cared for in the neighborhood. These include people who reside at nursing facilities or go to physical therapy facilities, visit the VFW Post, visit the public parks/open spaces, attend summer camp and nature/educational programs at the Tacoma Nature Center, and/or or go to any one of the four public and private schools within the neighborhood.”

Lt. Dan Still of the Tacoma Police Department testified at the July 18 hearing to enter public-safety questions into the record. Signature offered its responses in written form later to the city after also going through them in the hearing.

Signature said it would serve primarily patients from Tacoma and Pierce County, “but we do not refuse to assess and determine level of care required for any patient that arrives on-site, regardless of where that patient originates.”

It noted its Certificate of Need approval “was predicated on the bed need analysis in Pierce County specifically. Other counties are served by hospitals in those jurisdictions.”

In regard to safety and staffing, it responded: “Signature has some hospitals with 24/7/365 security officers and some without security officers. Each hospital is decided on a case-by-case basis during the startup process. Signature is not opposed to security officers around the clock.

“... Staffing will be based on census (i.e. number of patients), but also on acuity. Therefore, if a physician order increased observations or precautions, TBHH would staff additional personnel accordingly.”

Shanta Franz, land use planner with the city’s Planning and Development Services, said the police were looped into the process after public comments about public safety. The police, she noted, were not part of the original public notice list.

“Were there functional or physical elements of the proposal that could address public safety?” Franz said, explaining the police role in the process. The planning staff also raised the issue with the applicant.

The Wellfound development did not follow the same process, she explained, which left the city without a frame of reference to address security concerns.

“That application was an outright permitted use for the site, so there was no public review or even a land use application except for maybe a design variance,” Franz said at the hearing. “Staff did not review that site and its logistical or design elements.”

Another point of clarification came from Jean Scallon, regional vice president of operations with Signature. Scallon testified at the hearing that the Indeed.com employee review page mentioned in the city staff report that addressed Signature employee complaints actually was for Signature HealthCARE LLC. That is a different company that provides assisted living, cognitive care, rehabilitation, skilled nursing, and home health services.

The Signature company behind the Tacoma hospital, though, is still involved in a case in California that revolves around an ex-worker’s sexual misconduct at Signature’s Aurora Vista del Mar Hospital in Ventura, California. That case also included complaints about the hiring/vetting process. The hospital’s lawyer defended its hiring policies, training programs and supervision of employees in his opening statements in June.

In its submitted safety answers, the company noted that the Tacoma hospital would contract with a third-party vendor to perform background checks of staff, with multiple layers of requirements involved.

Signature also added additional comment in its security answers to address neighbors’ concerns about the Tacoma site.

“After hearing comments from the public relating to the dense woods beyond a portion of the site, Signature is more than willing to extend the height of the wall to help assuage any concerns. Again, TBHH will be more than equipped to ensure patient, staff, and community safety at all times,” the company said.

“Concerns about escape or danger to the community are reasonable, but those situations are very unlikely to occur,” it added.

“Right now, people within the Tacoma and Pierce County communities are not receiving adequate access to care. By providing TBHH as a resource, the Tacoma community will be safer for it.”