A popular proposal to build a psychiatric treatment center in Forest Lake for children and teenagers who have mental illnesses was rejected by city officials late Monday.

The vote was a setback to state efforts to expand mental health programs in the community but developers of the project known as Cambia Hills vowed to look for a new location.

When City Council members voted 3-2 to reject the proposal, citing concerns about suitability and neighborhood safety, supporters erupted into boos and shouts of, "Shame on you! Shame on you!"

The $20 million project was hailed by mental health advocates, state officials and many nearby residents, who packed the City Council hearing to voice their support. One after another, parents of children and adolescents with mental illnesses spoke of the urgent need for more treatment options. Several mothers sobbed and held up photos of their children, as they described their difficulties accessing mental health care.

Barbara Herzog of nearby Columbus pleaded with council members to approve the project, while holding up a portrait of her youngest son, Jacob, who died by suicide at age 14. "I don't want any other families to go through what we went through," said Herzog, a registered nurse. "It hurts."

The Hills Youth and Family Services, a Duluth-based nonprofit, had planned to build the 60-bed residential treatment center on the site of a family-run horse farm about 30 miles north of Minneapolis. It would have treated children, ages 7 to 17, with neurological conditions such as autism and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety whose psychiatric problems are not serious enough to require hospitalization.

Numerous obstacles

The vote underscores the challenges of locating mental health programs in local communities. Even a popular project such as Cambia Hills can face regulatory hurdles and resistance from local officials. These challenges are likely to intensify as state and local agencies move to expand efforts to treat more people in community settings, rather than institutions.

The proposed facility in Forest Lake appeared to enjoy unusual public support. A recent online poll found that 85 percent of residents supported the project. On two occasions, the city's planning commission unanimously approved a change to the city's zoning rules to allow the project to proceed. It even had the support of some business owners, who expressed hope that the facility's 150 new jobs would stimulate the local economy.

In Forest Lake, parents, teachers, school administrators and others all spoke in favor of the project at two public hearings. "This vote was the opposite of courageous," said a visibly angry Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Minnesota, who spoke at the hearing.

Psychiatrists say such children in Minnesota are waiting up to three months for placement in psychiatric facilities. The waits are so long that children are often caught cycling through hospital emergency rooms or going out of state for treatment.

The project known as Cambia Hills came out of legislation in 2015 that approved a new kind of facility for treating youth with mental disorders. The state was to develop 150 additional mental health beds in facilities that would offer more intensive services than traditional outpatient therapy but would be less intensive than a psychiatric hospital.

Within minutes after Monday's vote, Dave Hartford, administrator of Hills Youth and Family Services, said the project would be built elsewhere in the north metro.

"This project is going to happen, no matter what," he said.