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Child psychiatric center supporters pressure Forest Lake council, but vote delayed

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Jennifer Curtis testifies in favor of the facility.
Jennifer Curtis, who lives in near Forest Lake, said having a mental health facility nearby could have helped her daughter who ended up in a juvenile detention center.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

City leaders in Forest Lake have again delayed a decision on whether to move forward with a residential psychiatric facility for children and teenagers. At a council meeting Monday night, dozens of people spoke in favor of building the center. 

The Hills Youth and Family Services, a Duluth nonprofit, wants to build the facility on part of Shadow Creek Stables, a family-run horse farm about 30 miles north of Minneapolis. 

It would have 60 beds for children with conditions including autism, depression and mood disorders, but who don't need intense hospitalization. As part of their treatment, they'd care for and interact with horses. 

A proposed mental health treatment center in Forest Lake.
The developer's rendering of a proposed mental health treatment center for children in Forest Lake.
The Hills Youth and Family Services

Jennifer Curtis, who lives in nearby Columbus, said such a place could have helped her daughter. Curtis says three years ago the girl began attempting suicide and had to go to the hospital 10 times over a seven-month period. She required residential treatment, but there was no space available in the Twin Cities metro. 

"She ended up in St. Cloud, because there were no beds in the cities," Curtis said. "She ran [away] twice, because she couldn't stand being that far away from home."

After a two-week stay at Abbott Northwestern Hospital, Curtis said her daughter wound up at Lino Lakes Juvenile Detention Center.

"That is not an appropriate place for a mentally ill child who has never committed a crime."

Forest Lake City Council members listen to public testimony.
Forest Lake City Council members listen to public testimony at their meeting on Monday.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

Despite this and dozens of other impassioned pleas Monday night, Forest Lake Mayor Ben Winnick stood firm against changing a few words in a city ordinance to allow the treatment center. It would be built in an area that's zoned for family residential use, and only small facilities serving 10 or fewer people are allowed there. 

Winnick said the horse farm, located in an undeveloped part of town near the airport, doesn't fit in with the city's long-term comprehensive plan.

"[There are] definitely quite a few other parcels of land for sale," Winnick said. "It's not the only buildable parcel in Forest Lake. Definitely does not fit our comp plan or what our comp plan is moving forward to."

One of two City Council members who favor the treatment center, Sam Husnik said the city would miss "a golden opportunity here because of a zoning text amendment. And from what I've been hearing from lots of folks, including the planning commission, is that there isn't that big of an issue with the zoning text amendment. It happens all the time." 

Jeff Bradt, CEO of The Hills Youth and Family Services, said zoning is just a pretext to keep the treatment facility out of Forest Lake. He's not hopeful further study will change council members' minds.

"The sad thing is there were many expressions of their sympathy and concern for people with mental health conditions but no willingness to move forward on a project that would have a huge benefit to those very same people," Bradt said.

Other metro area communities say they'd welcome a new children's psychiatric treatment center, Bradt added.