Opinion divided on mental health facility

The Lifeways McNary mental health facility is scheduled for completion in early fall of this year, according to General Contractor Larry Baarstad.

By Luke Hegdal

Staff writer

UMATILLA — Construction has already started on the new Lifeways mental health facility in McNary, and some local residents are voicing concern.

The building will be a 10,700-square-foot secure residential facility for patients with mental illness, and is located along Willamette Avenue, in McNary.

It will house as many as 16 patients, 10 of whom may be long-term "forensic" patients, meaning they have committed a crime, but were judged incompetent or not guilty due to insanity.

That is what has local residents worried.

"I don't think it's a good idea," said Brian Thomas. "I mean, there's a grade school right there."

Many of those who voiced concern about the facility cited the facility's proximity to McNary Elementary as their main worry.

"Why not put it out in the desert," said another McNary resident Jerry Drake. "There's plenty of desert, dirt cheap."

Anne Conforth, owner of two rental properties in McNary, is even considering starting a petition to shut the project down.

While the location is the main concern of some local residents, most are upset that they didn't know about the project before construction started.

"I feel like they sort of snuck it in on us," said Drake.

Leanna Meeks who works at the McNary Market across the street from the construction site agrees.

"I would say that 90 percent of the people who come in here don't know what that is," Meeks said.

City officials, however, say that the public was legally notified of the planning meetings, before the project began.

According to Umatilla City Manager Larry Clucas, Oregon law stipulates that residences within 100 feet of a proposed construction site must be notified by mail, and the city must post a notice with local newspapers in the Legals section.

"We had nobody show up (to the meetings)," said Clucas. "We had no public from anywhere."

The city may have fulfilled their legal obligation, but the residents concerned about the facility claim the city should have tried harder.

"There's a lot of people who don't get papers who don't know about it." Conforth said, adding that she didn't see any mention of the planning meetings in the monthly newsletter the city sends to residents.

Not all residents are worried, however. Tony Villanueva, a Umatilla High School teacher and coach said he doesn't see any problem with the location of the Lifeways facility.

"Until it gets going and people see it's OK, they are going to worry," said Villanueva, adding that he isn't the only person who isn't worried. "I talk to a lot of people and unless you ask them, the topic doesn't come up."

City officials agree that there is nothing to worry about.

The building and grounds will be surrounded by a double fence, and have state-of-the-art locks and sensors. The mental health facility will also be staffed around the clock.

"They have done an excellent job of providing a secure facility," said Umatilla Planning Commission member Larry Nelson. "The fencing situation is fairly sophisticated. I thinks it's well handled."

Clucas agreed, adding that the facility isn't a penal institution, but a mental health facility. Clucas also added that the facility will be an economic boon for the area.

According to the Lifeways press release, the facility will employ 38 people, and have a nearly $2 million dollar per year budget.

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