A behavioral health hospital planned for a vacant lot across from Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton received the go-ahead from the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission. The project’s opponents, however, said it’s certainly not over.
The privately run facility will provide in-patient, short-term crisis and professional treatment to people with mental illnesses. Next door, the property’s owner, developer, and retired surgeon Harvey Billig, plans to also build a 60-bed, 36,503 square-foot memory care facility.
Both facilities required the approval of the subdivision of the 4.9-acre lot on Las Tables Road and a height variance for the 91-bed, 70,419 square-foot behavioral health hospital. The Planning Commission unanimously approved that package on Jan. 14.
The non-medical, voluntary facility will have four separate sections to treat children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly; will take private insurance and Medicare; and will not treat involuntary patients or drug and alcohol addiction.
The area’s mental health community is strongly in favor of the project, saying that SLO County is in dire need of such a facility. During public comment at the Jan. 14 meeting and a previous meeting in December, several people who said they have a family member suffering from a mental illness spoke of the challenges of finding the kinds of treatment that this facility would provide. They said it’s common practice for people to have to travel to far away facilities like those in Ventura or Santa Rosa.
Opponents of the project, however, picked apart both the project’s impacts on infrastructure and possible problems created by patients. The facility in general, they say, would become a burden on the tightly knit, unincorporated community.
The Templeton Area Advisory Group (TAAG), a body that serves a local advisory role to the county, opposed the project after a 7-0 vote that followed several public meetings in late 2014. In a Nov. 30, 2015, letter to the Planning Commission, TAAG Chairman David La Rue argues that a scaled-down facility that only serves seniors would be a better fit.
“This oversized ‘catch-all’ facility is not properly designed to serve the mental health needs of the entire county,” La Rue’s letter said.
Project supporters said that a strong, fear-based bias toward people with mental illnesses was an underlying motive to the opposition.
Atascadero resident Diane O’Neil said she went to a well-attended TAAG meeting in November 2014, where the body heard input from residents.
“I have never seen so much emotion expressed, and stigma expressed, as I have ever seen in my life,” O’Neil told the commission. “I even heard the TAAG board members mention that we do not want ‘these people’ in our neighborhood and in our schools.”
Other supporters noted the facility’s appropriate fit and ideal proximity to other medical businesses and facilities.
When it came time for a decision, the Planning Commission was advised to consider only the impacts of the project itself, and not any concerns related to the people that the facility would be treating, which could be considered discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
That irked project opponents, including Murray Powell, a member of Concerned Citizens Preventing Unintended Consequences, which formed to oppose the project.
In an email, Powell wrote that the “legal advice was biased and intended to restrict the commission’s ability to fully and accurately review the impact and adverse consequences that this project will have on our county.”
Powell said that the group plans to appeal the project’s approval to the Board of Supervisors. The deadline to file an appeal is Jan. 28.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay