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Judge orders City Council to reconsider rejection of 2nd Tacoma psychiatric hospital

The decision over whether a second psychiatric care facility can be developed just down the street from an already established one in Tacoma is back in the hands of the city.

Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff ruled Friday in favor of Tacoma Life Properties, the entity and landowner behind the proposed Signature Healthcare Behavioral Health Hospital, just a few blocks west of Wellfound Behavioral Health on South 19th Street.

Chushcoff said it appeared the city breached its own process when the City Council rejected a rezone that would have allowed Signature to move ahead with its facility.

In his ruling, Chushcoff referred to a state law that allows a court to grant relief if proven that a deciding body “failed to follow a prescribed process, unless the error was harmless.”

“Obviously, this decision is not harmless,” the judge said.

Chushcoff said the City Could either appeal his decision or add the ordinance for the development’s required rezone back on a council agenda for a final vote, the same ordinance it rejected in December after initially passing it in September at its first reading.

The location, 1915 S. Proctor St., on the south side of South 19th Street, is owned by Tacoma Life Properties LLC, established by Soon K. Kim, CEO of Corona, California-based Signature.

An attorney for Tacoma Life Properties, which appealed the council’s rezone rejection to the Superior Court, said the judge got it right.

“It’s a terribly heavy burden the city hasn’t met here,” attorney William Lynn said. “(Deputy city attorney) Steve Victor has done an admirable job of trying to defend the indefensible.”

The city is deciding how to move forward, Mayor Victoria Woodards said.

“We are going to review the decision with the city attorney’s office next week and determine our next steps, which may include appealing the ruling,” Woodards said in a statement.

Timeline leading to hospital fight

In August, hearing examiner Jeff Capell recommended approval of the rezone needed for the project and offered conditional approval of the project’s permits.

Options available to the City Council at that time were to follow the hearing examiner’s recommendation to approve the rezone for the 105-bed psychiatric hospital, approve it with different conditions from the hearing examiner’s recommendation or deny the request outright.

The council approved the rezone with no additional conditions during its first reading of the ordinance in September, then rejected the ordinance entirely at the Dec. 17 council meeting.

The December vote was a surprise and stood in contrast to public comments by council members and others for the need for more psychiatric beds to address an area shortage. That need was made all more problematic with the closure of a 23-bed unit at St. Joseph Medical Center as part of a settlement to allow Signature to enter the Tacoma market.

Wellfound’s problem-plagued first months of operations added urgency to the shortage amid its own delays in being able to add more beds.

In the process, Signature faced concerns ahead of the rezoning hearing regarding safety of its proposed Tacoma site.

Lynn, at a July land-use hearing, defended the Tacoma project, noting,“Fears cannot be allowed to override the land-use process.”

Council member Keith Blocker, in whose district the proposal was to be built, took the lead in rejecting the ordinance at the December council meeting and was supported by the mayor and rest of the council.

The reason given at that time was that District 3 was bearing too much of the burden of these types of developments, and the next site should be built elsewhere to help distribute human services facilities in a more equal manner to serve the county’s residents.

“I have huge concerns about placing and consolidating too many behavioral health centers in one location, and it comes off to me that when it comes to these kinds of services, the go-to is the City of Tacoma and with that the go-to is District 3,” Blocker said at the council meeting ahead of the vote. “... It’s not equitable.”

A delayed vote

On Friday, Lynn argued to Chushcoff that the first reading of the rezoning ordinance assured it would be approved on second reading, as stated in city code.

After weeks passed without the proposal showing up on the agenda for a second reading, The News Tribune asked the city about the delay.

On Dec. 2, the city’s legal department in an emailed response blamed “process confusion.”

“There was confusion on which City department would submit the second reading of the rezone on the agenda. The City Attorney’s Office and the Hearing Examiner both thought the other department would make the submittal,” according to the statement. “The two departments cleared up the misunderstanding, and then had to determine which agenda, of a number of very full agendas, could accommodate this legislation. Dec 3rd was the final decision. In short, there was no substantive reason for the delay.”

In answering whether the council planned to change any of the conditions set forth, the department responded in the same email: “With regard to conditions, City staff are not recommending any additional conditions beyond those required by the (hearing examiner), which are quite extensive. To recap, the rezone decision before the Council tomorrow is not quasi-judicial, so the Council is voting in their normal legislative policy role.”

When asked Friday by Chushcoff why the ordinance didn’t appear on the agenda the following week, Victor said he was “not a part of that decision.”

Victor added that the purpose for a delay between first and second reading “is to consider public testimony.”

Lynn argued public comment was already taken prior to the first reading.

“This is the result of a lengthy, required public process. They had all the time in the world to review it,” Lynn said.

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