Eagle County approves Northstar Center behavioral health project in Edwards | VailDaily.com

Eagle County approves Northstar Center behavioral health project in Edwards

One resident whose family has dealt with a mental health crisis states ‘this is the critical missing piece’

Eagle County Commissioners participate in a site tour for Vail Health’s new Northstar Center in Edwards. Project planner Tom Braun, front right, leads the tour.
Kelli Duncan/Vail Daily

Twelve years ago, when Glenn and Agnes Harakal’s son experienced a mental health crisis, he was shackled and transported to Grand Junction for care.

“This was how we dealt with mental health,” Glenn said Tuesday while speaking in front of the Eagle County Board of Commissioners.

“I would never wish for anyone to go through what we went through,” Agnes added.

Eagle County has come a long way since then, and following the actions of the commissioners Tuesday, the next step in the continuing evolution of building out the valley’s behavioral health support system is imminent.

In a unanimous decision following a five-hour hearing, the commissioners approved Vail Health’s Northstar Center Planned Unit Development amendment to allow construction of a medical campus anchored by a behavioral health center that will include a 28-bed in-patient facility.

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“This is the critical missing piece,” said Glenn Harakal, who was one of about a dozen county residents who spoke in support of the project.

Local behavioral health leaders noted the in-patient beds will address the gap that currently exists in the valley. At present, patients who require hospitalization for behavioral health treatment must travel to Denver or Grand Junction and often can’t find availability even at those distant locations.

“Suicide is the second leading cause of death in Colorado for our younger adult population,” said Chris Lindley, the chief population health officer for Vail Health and the executive director of Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. He noted the need for behavioral health services is particularly acute in the Colorado High Country.

Lindley said last year, there were 275 suicide attempts in Eagle County.

“Almost every day, someone in our community tried to take their life,” he noted.

Additionally, on average 14 people per month are placed on a mental health hold.

“That’s an average of one mental health hold every other day,” Lindley said.

In comparison, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Vail Health has seen a total of 70 hospitalizations.

“We have had 50% more mental health holds than COVID hospitalizations,” Lindley said.

A strong coalition of community resources has formed in Eagle County to address the local behavioral health need. Leading the way, Vail Health has pledged $60 million to the effort and already spent $12 million, Lindley said. Resources like the Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley have been created to provide crisis care. But the next step is a big one: the creation of an in-patient facility.

“It will be the least amount of people we will serve,” Lindley said. “But they are the ones that are at the most critical risk. Our hope is that two years from now, no community members will have to leave the county to get care.”

“This is not a long-term rehabilitation facility. It is not a long-term mental health facility,” he added.

Instead, the Northstar Center would provide immediate services and help stabilize patients. When a patient is discharged from the facility, he or she will have a long-term care plan.

While the behavioral health center is a centerpiece of the Northstar campus, it isn’t the only use that will operate at the site. At build-out, the campus will include space for Mountain Family Health Center and the Eagle Valley Community Foundation food bank. A Colorado Mountain Medical clinic will operate at the site along with other community resources. All this is planned on land that formerly housed various commercial uses and a lumberyard.

Central site

Three buildings are proposed as part of the Northstar campus. The first is a new 42,000-square-foot building that will be constructed in what is currently a parking area located west of the existing buildings. The three-story structure will have patient beds on the second and third floors.

The remainder of the campus will be built where the current Northstar buildings are located and will cover a maximum of 70,000 square feet — a reduction from an initial plan for 85,000 square feet. According to project planner Tom Braun, the plan is to expand the medical uses to that area, but the precise uses will be determined by future need.

Braun noted the site — in the central part of the Eagle Valley and close to the Interstate 70 corridor — is ideal for the proposed use.

“Certainly the behavioral health building is a focal point,” Braun said. “But it is much more than that. The site can support the development we have proposed.”

While the central location and easy access were cited as positive factors for the proposal, the site also is located adjacent to a residential neighborhood: Old Edwards Estates. That proximity has generated concerns among those neighbors

Not arguing need

Kevin Roach, a resident of the Old Edwards Estates neighborhood for 34 years, said he and his neighbors don’t refute the need for expanded behavioral health services in the county.

“We are not your enemy down there,” he said. “I just still object to the size and scope of it. It is huge. It is intimidating.”

After a neighborhood outreach effort by Vail Health, Braun noted the plan has been amended to include additional landscaping and fencing and a reduction in building height, along with the reduction in square footage.

Old Edwards Estates resident Stephanie Lord-Johnson offered objections to how the approval process for the Northstar project unfolded, but also noted that the Northstar development team agreed to significant changes.

“This team has shown, if nothing else, if they get direction they will respond,” she said.

On that point, neighbors noted changes they still want from the plan. One of their biggest requests was to eliminate a proposal for a social detox center on site.

Lindley said the social detox center was incorporated in the plan at the request of local law enforcement officers, who cited the need for a place where residents can safely go when they need detoxification. Lindley said, on average, the county sends two residents per month to Summit County where the nearest social detox center is located.

“This is a voluntary detox. It is not a place where you go to lock up folks,” he explained.

The commissioners commented that the social detox center was proposed in the next development phase and noted that residents would not have another opportunity to challenge that use if the project was approved. The Northstar team offered to drop that use as a permitted option for the current proposal.

In the future, if a social detox center or emergency operation department were part of a planned expansion, those uses would require public hearings before they could be built.

On the matter of compromise, the Northstar housing plan was also adjusted at Tuesday’s hearing. The county’s housing guidelines allow developments that provide a public benefit to request a 30% reduction in their housing requirement. The commissioners agreed that Northstar met that definition, but noted it was hard to allow a reduction in housing when that is also a community crisis issue.

Application of the county’s housing requirement would require development of eight new housing units for Northstar. The 30% reduction would drop that back to six units.

“That is the only sticking point for me. It’s two units, and that seems like a little thing to be sticking on,” said Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry.

Craig Cohn, real estate director for Vail Health, responded that Northstar would withdraw its request for a reduction in housing units and provide the eight units as required.

“We are a community partner. We will continue to be a community partner,” Cohn said.

Taken with the offer to remove the social detox center and emergency operation department as approved uses and the various other changes that were proposed after discussions with the Old Edwards Estates neighbors, the commissioners noted their concerns had all been addressed.

“I appreciate the collaborative nature of all of this. When we raise concerns as the public, it makes projects better,” said Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney.

The complete Northstar hearing can be viewed at evtv.

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