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After Lengthy Debate, Larimer County Solidifies Behavioral Health Facility Location

Larimer County
Larimer County
An artist's rendering of the new behavioral health facility. Residents and the city of Fort Collins pushed back on its location adjacent to the county landfill and future home of a waste transfer station.

Larimer County is moving forward with plans to build a new regional behavioral health facility at the base of the foothills southwest of Fort Collins. The Board of County Commissioners voted 2-1 on Tuesday to continue progress after months of debates threatened to delay the project by months — or even years.

In late 2018, Larimer County voters overwhelmingly approved a sales tax increase to fund a new regional behavioral health facility. The building, among other things, will be the first to offer crisis stabilization beds and a dedicated staff for people experiencing a mental health crisis in a county otherwise lacking those services. The campaign had broad support from city and county governments.

But ahead of a key vote held Tuesday, residents and representatives from the city of Fort Collins fought for commissioners to consider a new home for the project.

They argued the proposed site, which neighbors the county landfill and future home of a waste transfer station, was inappropriate for a project focused on treating patients in the midst of behavioral and mental health crises. Those efforts failed to sway the board, which ultimately decided the potential costs of delaying the project outweighed their concerns.

“I think this will be a very good location,” said Commissioner Steve Johnson. “The commitment we made to have this located as central as possible for the population of Larimer County was very important.”

‘It doesn’t exist’

The current preferred site is a swath of county-owned open space southwest of Fort Collins. County planners like it because it’s centrally located between Fort Collins and Loveland. The area has a more rural feel. And because the county already owns it, budget constraints are less of a concern, planners say.

But the location also happens to be near the county landfill, which is slated to close by 2026, and the future home of a new waste transfer station. There’s also no public transit nearby.

Laurie Stolen, director of Larimer County’s behavioral health services department, said planners have eyed the site for years.

“I don’t know that there’s a perfect piece of land,” she said. “If we could have the tranquility and public transit route, we’d love that. But it doesn’t exist.”

Meanwhile, local residents say they were caught off guard by the choice. Vara Vissa, a longtime resident who lives less than a half-mile from the proposed site, wasn’t informed the county had chosen the location until May of this year, when one of her neighbors got a notification letter in the mail.

Since then, she’s tried to voice her concerns through the mostly virtual public meeting process. But, she says, local leaders haven’t acknowledged her or her neighbor’s worries about a lack of public transit, the optics of building the project next to a dump and uncontrolled growth in the area.

“We haven’t been heard, seen or recognized,” Vissa said. “We as residents have been completely bypassed.”

Several new options

Earlier this summer, one of the project’s partners, the city of Fort Collins, requested permission to look for a new home for the behavioral health facility, citing the lack of public transit and location near the county landfill.

The city then spent more than a month scouting new locations closer to public transportation and local hospitals.

Its efforts resulted in three new options in Loveland and Fort Collins. The Larimer County Board of County Commissioners, which has final say over the project’s location, voted on Aug. 11 to reject those proposals in favor of the landfill-adjacent site.

Commissioner John Kefalas said the board needed to do a better job of engaging the community ahead of major development decisions, but he supported the original location. Taking time to consider new sites would be too big a risk, he said.

“I hope people understand we haven’t dismissed folks,” Kefalas said. “I’m not dismissing concerns that neighborhood folks have raised. I think we can think of creative ways to mitigate issues.”

Commissioner Tom Donnelly, who voted against continuing work on the site, said it was in the best interest of county taxpayers to ensure they consider other locations. Donnelly said he was concerned about future truck traffic going to and from the future waste transfer station.

“We’re building a 50-year facility,” Donnelly said. “We need to do it right.”

Fort Collins mayor Wade Troxell said the introduction of new options wasn’t meant to intentionally delay the project. But because of the importance of the behavioral health facility, more time and discussion should be given to selecting a location.

Said Troxell, “I think it will be a shame if in 10 years people say, ‘Why was this located here for just these three or four reasons?’”

Loveland’s city leaders see the issue differently. On Aug. 10, the city council voted not to take a position on any of the proposed sites for the project.

“To me it’s (the commissioner’s) decision,” said councilmember Steve Olsen. “I think the site should speak for itself and I think it will as they evaluate it more.”

Laurie Stolen, Larimer County’s behavioral health director, said looking at new sites for the behavioral health facility could have delayed the project by up to 18 months. The target for opening the facility’s doors is sometime in 2022.

Stolen said that a delay would mean residents aren’t getting access to the care they need for even longer.

“We still have a significant amount of people in our emergency rooms and being sent out of our community for care that they need because the services aren’t available in our community,” Stolen said. “We send them to Greeley and down to Denver.”

Matt Bloom/KUNC News
(From left) Uday, Anand and Vara Vissa at their home in southwest Fort Collins. Vissa says she and her neighbors have been left out of the behavioral health facility's planning process.

A path forward

Fort Collins resident Vara Vissa hopes more attention is brought to the potential loss of open space and rural feel along the foothills with the site currently favored. She also wants the county to address a 1995 planning document that calls for preserving the current favored site as a natural space.

“The absence of any credible transparency, outreach is all a bloody mess,” Vissa said. “I’m sick of the city and county trying to pull wool over our eyes.”

KUNC reached out to the county for a comment on the planning document, but did not get a response by publication time.

Vissa’s son, Anand, a college student, has also joined the fight. He sees the mental health facility location issue as an example of broader growth mismanagement in Northern Colorado.

“I know the population of (the region) has almost doubled since I was born, but it’s grown towards where I grew up,” Vissa said. “It hasn’t been contained. It seems like they’re going to indefinitely expand until there’s no bit of open space left.”

Now that the Larimer County commissioners have signaled their support of the site near Vissa’s home, construction could begin as soon as this fall.

I cover a wide range of issues within Colorado’s dynamic economy including energy, labor, housing, beer, marijuana, elections and other general assignment stories.