County planning group greenlights Vail Health’s Northstar Center proposal
Plan for new behavioral health campus in Edwards will now go to county commissioners for final action
Everyone assembled Wednesday for the Eagle County Planning Commission’s public hearing regarding the proposed Northstar Center at Edwards agreed there is a pressing need for the proposed behavioral health facility.
They didn’t all agree, however, about the location where the center is planned. But after a nearly four-hour hearing Wednesday, the planning commission voted to accept the county staff’s analysis of the proposal and recommend approval of the ambitious project. That clears the way for the plan to go before the Eagle County Board of Commissioners for final action.
The Northstar Center is a proposal from Vail Health, Eagle Valley Behavioral Health and several partner organizations to redevelop the former Northstar Lumber site located at the southwest corner of the Edwards Interstate 70 interchange. The plan includes construction of a new 40,000-square foot building at the location that would include a 28-bed in-patient facility to provide stabilization care for patients who are experiencing a mental health crisis. As plan proponents note, currently local residents who require stabilization care must be transported to Denver or Grand Junction if there is a space for them in one of those locations.
The Northstar Center plan also includes community services at existing buildings. There is space proposed for Colorado Mountain Medical’s outpatient behavioral health services and other local organizations including Mountain Family Health Center, United Way of the Eagle River Valley, My Future Pathways, The Community Market, The Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley and the Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance/MIRA bus program.
The proposed center comes in response to a local, state and national mental health emergency, said Chris Lindley, chief population health officer for Vail Health and the executive director of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.
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In 2019, Vail Health committed $60 million and launched a $100 million fundraising campaign to address the valley’s behavioral health needs. During the past 18 months, the number of licensed behavioral health providers in Eagle County has doubled and Lindley noted there are now more than 50 providers in the community.
“But all of those providers are out-patient providers,” he said. “The part of the equation that hasn’t been solved is people who need in-patient services. This is that last piece.”
Lindley acknowledged that some Edwards residents have expressed reservations about the Northstar operation and attempted to assuage those concerns.
“Just like you might need a hospital for a heart attack at some point, some people have to have inpatient care for behavioral health services,” Lindley said. In actuality, he noted that the Vail Health emergency room sees four times as many mental health holds as heart attack cases. Most of those mental health cases involve people suffering from depression or anxiety, he noted.
“These are people in crisis. They are not criminals and they are not people who are dangerous to our community,” Lindley said. “These are your neighbors.”
Without the availability of inpatient services, these neighbors are suffering, Lindley continued.
“The majority of our completed suicides happen after someone has been discharged from a hospital,” he said. After spending time at a distant inpatient facility, these local residents return home to a situation where there isn’t a continuing care plan, Lindley explained.
The new care model would include medically stabilizing a patient at Vail Health and then transporting him or her to the Northstar Center for an average two- to three-day stay. During that stay, the patient would be connected to out-patient resources to help with long-term treatment.
Community in need
During the public comment session of Wednesday’s hearing, several local residents offered impassioned remarks about the need for Northstar Center. Vickie Ortega-Zacher spoke about her 13-year-old daughter Olivia, who died by suicide in February of 2018.
After months of trying to find local help for her daughter, Zacher described how she was eventually transferred to an inpatient clinic in Denver. “My daughter took her life about 10 days after she had been released,” Ortega-Zacher said. “A family shouldn’t have to go through that.”
Olivia’s story may have been different if there were local resources and an in-patient treatment option, Ortega-Zacher said.
“A stabilization unit of this type is essential to our community. It is essential to our children’s well-being,” said Katie Jarnot, who was principal at Eagle Valley Middle School when Olivia died by suicide.
“This meeting tonight is a first step toward something that can be amazing and will save lives in our community,” said Erin Ivie, executive director of SpeakUp ReachOut, the suicide prevention coalition of Eagle County. “This is how we make our community more safe and more inviting.”
Mass and scale
The Northstar Center proposal has generated objections, primarily from neighboring property owners who are concerned about the height and mass of the proposed buildings.
“I am totally in support of mental health,” said Stephanie Lord Johnson, a resident of Old Edwards Estates, located west of the Northstar site. But she noted the proposed location is inappropriate for a medical campus that will eventually cover up to 85,000 square feet with buildings that will reach as tall as 65 feet.
“This is just an insult to 62 homeowners,” she said. “I feel like we have been completely ignored as a community.”
She urged the commission to table the file until additional discussions occur between the applicant and neighborhood dwellers.
Resident Amanda Hewitt noted that the Northstar application characterizes the new use as a “lateral move” that replaces the former lumberyard/commercial uses with a medical campus.
“I want you to think about how different a medical facility and a lumberyard are,” she said. “We don’t view these things as a lateral move.”
“I am abundantly in support of mental health and mental health services in this community,” Hewitt continued. However, she questioned the assertion that Edwards was the appropriate site for a facility, arguing that the community isn’t really the population center of the valley. Hewitt said Eagle would be a better location for the center, and noted that Vail Health already owns land in the community located near the I-70 interchange.
Land use focus
In their deliberations for the file, commission members noted their job was to look at the application to determine if it met the parameters of county land use code and the Edwards Area Master Plan. County staff members concluded that it does —with four conditions which primarily relate to Colorado Department of Transportation access issues.
“On balance, I support the findings of the staff,” said commission member Dee Wisor. He noted there has been discussion about installing fencing between the campus and the adjacent neighborhood and urged residents and the applicant to work together on that project.
Commission member Bob Warner said that taking industrial uses off the site is a positive move.
“Everybody is a NIMBY. I am a NIMBY. It is a reality,” he said. “People get used to what’s next door and if it’s open space, that’s what they want.”
Warner said he believes the proposal meets the Edwards master plan. “I think they will be a good neighbor,” he said.
“I implore Vail Health to consult with the neighbors,” said commission member Patrick Scanlon, “and I ask that old Edwards Estates works with Vail Health in a coordinated manner.”
“I believe that you can create an atmosphere on both sides of that fence that is good for both parties,” said commission member Vern Brock.
In that spirit, Brock and commission chair Leah Mayer proposed tabling the file and directing the applicant to reach out to neighboring properties. Mayer suggested that the planning commission consider codifying changes to the plan that will address concerns.
In response, the project team members said they would not object to having the file tabled for two weeks but asked, specifically, what the commission wanted them to accomplish. Commissioner member Tim Carpenter noted that there is no homeowners association for Old Edwards Estates, which makes negotiating mitigation plans difficult because the neighborhood doesn’t speak with a singular voice. He noted that what is acceptable for one resident may not be alright with another.
Ultimately, Warner made the motion to approve the file with the conditions suggested by staff. He noted that when the Eagle County Board of Commissioners takes up its deliberations, the staff report will include information about the various concerns voiced by the planning commission members. His motion passed in a 4-2 vote with Mayer and Brock dissenting.
The complete Northstar Center application can be viewed at EagleCounty.us/planning/activelanduseapplications.