Proposed Alzheimer's facility draws objections

  • Article by: JIM ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2010 - 6:15 AM

A proposed Alzheimer's facility in Woodbury is latest to draw "not-in-my- back-yard" objections.

When a released sex offender plans to move in next door, or a drug-treatment center is scoping sites for a new halfway house, a neighborhood's red flags invariably follow.

Now, the list of objectionable neighbors is growing.

In the face of overwhelming opposition from residents in an upscale community called Stonemill Farms in eastern Woodbury, plans for a 45-unit assisted-living facility for people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia have been put on hold.

The Alzheimer's facility is the latest in a growing list of projects across the metro that are meeting resistance from neighbors who perceive a threat to their communities or fear their property values will erode.

A decision on whether to recommend the Woodbury project for approval was to go before the city's Planning Commission on April 5, but the developer on Wednesday asked for more time to address issues, including concerns raised by neighbors, said Eric Searles, associate planner for Woodbury.

The move follows nearly a month of intensive protests and petitions by neighbors who mainly object to locating the facility in a failed retail site near a day care center and across the street from an elementary school. Many have also expressed a sense of betrayal that the original plans for the community never envisioned an assisted-living facility.

Ecumen, the Shoreview nonprofit company that would operate the facility after it's built by the developer, has never confronted such opposition to a proposed project. Ecumen operates more than 100 senior communities in the Upper Midwest.

Nearly all of its senior housing projects are located in neighborhoods -- often with day-care children having regular visits with residents, said Eric Schubert, Ecumen's vice president for communication and public affairs.

"It's sad," Schubert said. "Regardless of whatever happens to this project, the larger conversation for us in the Twin Cities, and for our state, as a person gets Alzheimer's every 70 seconds is: How do we live? ... Who's next?"

Opposition everywhere

Though the proposals may vary, the concerns of the Woodbury neighborhood have been expressed in many metro communities in recent months:

• Plans for an eating-disorder clinic in Orono by the nonprofit Emily Program were scrapped last week after fierce neighborhood opposition. The program is now looking at other cities to locate.

• Signs have gone up in Edina's Countryside Neighborhood voicing opposition to the scope of plans for a four-story, 150-unit senior housing complex being developed in partnership with Colonial Church.

• In August, plans to add a foster home in Centerville for four teenage boys with developmental and mental disabilities were derailed after neighbors objected.

• In 2008, more than 120 residents signed a petition against a planned expansion of Martin Luther Manor in Bloomington. Several other developments for seniors in that city have also drawn opposition.

• In New Brighton, plans for the church-affiliated Clifton House -- at six beds the smallest nursing home in the state -- drew neighborhood opposition before being approved two years ago.

A community's defensive reaction that has come to be known as NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) is often based on perception of a threat -- to safety, crime, increased traffic -- that never materializes, said Carissa Schively Slotterback, assistant professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs.

The response to projects involving seniors isn't typical, but "in my experience, you do see it with other social services," she said, especially those with social stigmas such as homelessness, drug treatment and mental health.

It may be occurring more frequently now because of societal changes.

"In a lot of communities, the thinking is to allow people to age in place, to let them stay in communities where they have a social network they can rely on," Schively Slotterback said.

Quelling concerns

The prospect of change and uncertainty in a community can lead to a visceral reaction that manifests in opposition, Schively Slotterback said. Reducing that uncertainty by providing as much information about a proposal can be a key factor in mitigating the NIMBY response.

Patrick Slevin, another expert on NIMBY issues, agreed.

"I think there's certainly a growing trend across the nation with regard to homeowners, as well as special interests, resisting change in the character of their communities," said Slevin, a senior vice president with the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton.

A former mayor from Florida, he has seen too many conflicts over development projects "essentially change into Jerry Springer episodes -- instead of communicating, there's just a lot of polarization."

Slevin works as a consultant for companies to help defuse potentially explosive opposition to development projects.

"Certainly, the [poor] economy has slowed the rate of development," Slevin said. "But the intensity and frequency of community opposition, or opposition from local special interests, has actually increased, from my observation.

"There might not be as many commercial projects, but you're seeing more opposition to windmills, assisted housing, workforce housing, landfills -- even something for senior citizens. The opposition is still very intense, and it's the breakdown of a system."

Though it doesn't happen often enough, Slevin said key for developers is to do due diligence on the front end with all concerned stakeholders before an application for a project is even filed. "You'll find very quickly whether or not your project is politically viable," he said.

"The alternative, which we see all too often unfortunately, is the NIMBY genie leaves the bottle, and it's a different ball game," he said. "And even the most sustainable projects -- both economically and environmentally -- are under a cloud."

Jim Anderson • 612-673-7199

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