The Forest Lake City Council didn’t kill a proposal to build a children’s mental health treatment center in the community. But officials also failed to move it forward Monday, an outcome that brazenly disrespects constituents and threatens to send the project elsewhere.
The council chamber was jammed during Monday’s meeting with neighbors, local educators, local mental health care advocates and the property’s current owner. Support was loud and clear. The proposed treatment center would maintain the property’s rural character and farm buildings. Neighbors made it clear that they prefer this over the lights and traffic of a retail development — something Mayor Ben Winnick has said he wants. Others lauded the project’s 150 jobs or spoke about the need for metro-area mental health care.
The resounding support allowed the project’s proponents to get their hopes up that despite the shabby treatment they received at a prior council meeting — when Winnick stated he was opposed to the project before developers even had a chance to present it. But Winnick’s rude, repeated attempts to cut off residents on Monday unfortunately signaled the brick wall that three of the council’s five members would put up.
When it came time to make a decision, it was as if Winnick, Mike Freer and Ed Eigner hadn’t heard a word. They hid behind the same weak excuses used at the Feb. 12 meeting to waylay the project. Among them: the project didn’t fit the city’s comprehensive plan for the future. They questioned how the zoning amendment would affect other similarly zoned parcels. And they thought that the project hadn’t gotten enough publicity in the area and that a public hearing was needed.
Forest Lake citizens, your community deserves better than this. The mayor and his cronies had time since Feb. 12 to get their zoning questions answered but failed to ask, and then blamed city staff for their own laziness. They also ran roughshod over the owner’s property rights by holding up the project to meet the unknown final details of an unfinished city plan.
The calls for a public hearing and more publicity were also ludicrous. What, exactly, does the mayor call the gathering of citizens Monday at a meeting covered by Twin Cities media? Do these citizens not count?
Council Members Mara Bain and Sam Husnik merit praise for urging the council to heed constituents. Credit is due to both of them that the project didn’t die but is still alive, though in procedural limbo.
The project’s nonprofit developers, the well-regarded The Hills Youth and Family Services, faces a tight contractual deadline to open the center by July 2019. The Hills is hanging onto hope for Forest Lake because of the site’s pastoral character. But leaders said this week that a signal is needed swiftly from the city that a partnership is possible.
Forest Lake’s leaders should quickly say yes. But if they don’t, other communities are watching. North Branch is one. Mayor Kirsten Hagen-Kennedy said she welcomed the chance to discuss building the treatment center there. “We are in growth mode and are seeking new development, particularly one that brings 150 jobs to our community.”