The two-year long debate over a proposed behavioral health hospital in Templeton was finally put to bed following unanimous approval by the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, unless, of course, the decision prompts a lawsuit from the project’s vociferous opponents.
Located on a 4.9-acre lot directly across from Twin Cities Community Hospital on Las Tablas Road, plans include construction of a 91-bed voluntary inpatient acute care short-term mental illness treatment facility and a 60-bed memory care facility. In January, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission unanimously approved the project—proposed by retired eye surgeon Dr. Harvey Billig, who has had a few unsuccessful bids to develop the lot since he purchased it three decades ago.
The Board of Supervisors heard the project on March 15 following an appeal by Templeton resident Murray Powell and the group Concerned Citizens Preventing Unintended Consequences. The appeal claimed that the county’s review of the project was insufficient and that it would bring negative environmental, social, and economic impacts.
The debate’s been a complicated helix, weaving together issues of land use and the treatment of mental illness.
Opponents raised sweeping concerns over the project’s size and impacts to traffic, air quality, drainage, and public safety. Several mental health professionals, people who suffered from mental illness, and their family members spoke of the difficulty of finding this sort of treatment, which often requires long trips out of county to receive appropriate care.
Jane Pomery, executive director of Central Coast Link, a North County-based organization that connects families with needed community services, said that the lack of a nearby facility could mean no treatment.
“Our clients face long waitlists and do not have the resources to get services outside of the county, so they go without,” she said.
Opponents of the facility are accused of being driven by a fear of the facility’s patients.
“It has nothing to do with the mental health stigma,” said Templeton resident Laurie Colton. “It has everything to do with our traffic flow, how our schools will be impacted, and services that we do not have.”
The project’s consultant Pamela Jardini took issue with those sentiments, noting the limited opposition to two similar projects recently approved in the Las Tablas Road corridor.
“These concerns were not raised on those projects,” she said. “You have to wonder why there are these concerns being raised today when they weren’t raised on other projects.”
Powell, who appealed the project, took shots at supporters and county staff, saying he was angered by how opponents were characterized and that the board wasn’t able to assess anything related to the patients because it could be considered discriminatory. He said that all testimony addressing the need for such a facility in the county was purely anecdotal and lacked any factual basis.
“We’ve wasted three hours of our time listening to a lot of stories that have nothing to do with what you guys are supposed to be considering,” he said.
Several of his concerns were addressed during the meeting, including staff determinations that the facility would not be a public safety risk, nor would it bring traffic and air quality impacts that couldn’t be mitigated.
Powell said his group would be open to a smaller facility built elsewhere in the county. Fourth District Supervisor Lynn Compton took issue with that, saying that it’s not the county’s role to dictate the size and locations of a proposed project, but rather to consider a project as proposed.
“We don’t have the discretion to tell an applicant when they come to us and say, ‘Well, we like your project, but we want you to buy another property in Nipomo and put it there,’” Compton said.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay