By DAVID BORAKS
Opponents of a proposed behavioral health hospital off N.C. 73 in east Davidson on Tuesday argued that the hospital should not be allowed under Davidson’s planning rules and demanded that town commissioners halt the project. But in a tense discussion at an informal “chat” with citizens Tuesday night, town officials said the project is allowed without Town Board action, and “there’s nothing to halt.”
The answer wasn’t what some in the audience at Hopewell Baptist Church fellowship hall were looking for. Earlier in the day, five couples who oppose the hospital had sent a letter to Town Board and Planning Board members seeking a delay in the project and threatening legal action.
Carolinas Healthcare System announced May 9 it plans to build the $36 million, 66-bed behavioral health hospital off N.C. 73/Davidson-Concord Road. CHS plans to buy 23 acres at the former Davidson East site from CommunityOne Bank, which foreclosed on the failed project 2 1/2 years ago. CHS chose the Davidson site after the Huntersville Town Board rejected its plan to build at a site on NC 115.
The discussion came during a 2-hour, no-agenda meeting Tuesday that also included questions about the status of the Red Line Regional Rail Project and MI-Connection Communications System, the local data network that Davidson owns with the town of Mooresville.
Although citizens at Tuesday’s meeting spoke both for and against the hospital, opponents spoke louder and and longer, and challenged town officials. Some opponents came from the River Run neighborhood, while others live next door to the site.
Chris Bradley, of Dembridge Drive in River Run, was among those who signed the letter, and at Tuesday’s meeting he scolded Mayor John Woods for inviting Carolinas Healthcare to look at sites in Davidson. He said he and others are “frustrated” and complained that the town did not follow “due process.”
He argued that zoning for the site does not explicitly mention a hospital as a potential use. And when town officials, citizens and the property owner were debating the rezoning in 2010-11, “hospitals were never brought up in the discussion.”
He also complained that the development won’t contribute to the town’s tax base, since Carolinas HealthCare System is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization. During the rezoning, he said, “There was a huge discussion over maintaining the tax base.” He asked why the town is giving up tax revenue at a time when it has been cutting its budget.
Mr. Bradley said other area towns classify hospitals as “institutional uses,” not as “commercial,” and said Davidson officials should not have interpreted the Davidson ordinance as allowing it.
“This is being shoved down people’s throats,” he said.
HALT THE PROJECT?
He looked at Mayor Woods and other board members, and asked: “Are you going to respond to the document (the letter circulated Tuesday) and are you going to halt all proceedings until you can have a clear presentation of all of the facts, all of the stuff you should have done and had presentable before your had a news conference?”
Mayor Woods said he and commissioners support interpretations by the town attorney and town planning director that the Davidson’s zoning allows the project. The mayor said the town has no role at this point, and is waiting on Carolinas Healthcare System. CHS has said the only steps left are to obtain a revised Certificate of Need from the state and to close on the land deal.
“What’s the hurry?” Mr. Bradley asked.
“We have no hurry,” Mayor Woods replied. He said once Carolinas Healthcare has a site plan to present, possibly in late June, another community meeting with neighbors would be held.
Town officials said no zoning approval is needed and no discussions are going on right now between the town and CHS. So, Mr. Bradley asked, why not halt the project?
“There’s nothing to halt,” Town Attorney Rick Kline said. “What are we halting?”
John Allen pushed the question. “Are you willing to halt it? Yes? No.”
“The answer is no,” Mayor Woods said.
COMMERCIAL INCLUDES HEALTH CARE
The site in question off N.C. 73 falls into a new commercial zoning classification adopted last year called “flex campus”, Brunson Russum, an architect and Davidson Planning Board member, said the town’s definition of “commercial” includes “health care services.” He said the town has no right to reject the project.
Later, Mr. Russum also said that people may have misconceptions about the kind of care the hospital will offer. “These are not the criminally insane. These are not dangerous people to the public,” he said.
Resident Sally Gordon said the town should not allow a non-profit use on the site, and should not commit to a project that might add to the town’s costs. “We need tax revenue,” she said.
Town Manager Leamon Brice said the project may cause only occasional fire or emergency calls and that police calls wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. He said Police Chief Jeanne Miller had met with CHS security officials, who will have officers at the hospital, and that she doesn’t think the town will need any additional police officers.
Resident Martha Jenkins, whose property adjoins the site and who serves on the planning board, said CHS officials told her the would have two security officers on duty in the daytime and one at night. With up to 66 patients expected, “That’s not much of a ratio,” she said, suggesting the town police would be needed to help maintain security.
He said that while CHS is a non-profit, the project likely would help spur other development nearby, initially by constructing roads and sewer lines into the site. He said the example of other health care facilities shows that additional commercial development could follow, including restaurants and other services to serve the hospital’s anticipated 155 employees.
Near the end of the 50-minute discussion, some town officials and citizens in the audience tried to address neighbors’ concerns about the the hospital’s use: for overnight stays by people facing mental illness. Commissioner Rodney Graham noted that the facility was badly needed in Mecklenburg County, and that statistics show that 1 out of 10 people (including those in the room) might need such services.
Commissioner Brian Jenest agreed, and said, “I feel this is very much in keeping with what we want as a town.”
Mayor John Woods acknowledged that he had called CHS officials and urged them to consider sites in Davidson. “I just invited them to come look at Davidson, because I personally am proud that we could offer a site here and as a community embrace the delivery of health care services, whether its mental health care, dermatology, orthopedics, or obstetrics. I don’t care.”
“I understand what that facility is, and I’m not afraid of it,” he said. He urged anyone concerned about the project to visit Carolinas Healthcare System’s other hospital off Randolph Road, which has a park, a school and neighborhoods surrounding it.
Mr. Bradley said he wasn’t against the facility and he agreed it’s needed in Mecklenburg County. But he objected to the mayor’s decision to contact CHS in the first place and to seek a nonprofit, tax exempt project. He said, “It’s about fiscal responsibility.”
Commissioner Laurie Venzon said she’s been compiling research on the potential economic impact of the hospital. Based on the hospital’s plans to hire 155 workers, she believes other tax revenues from new residents and other development would make up for the lack of revenue from the hospital.
She said to Mr. Bradley: “I’m not ready to run down the path with you that says this is going to be costing the taxpayers money.”
RELATED DOCUMENTS AND LINKS
May 29, 2012, Letter from “Due Process Davidson” to town officials asking for a halt to the CHS project. (PDF) Original signers were: Chris and Tina Bradley, Doug and AC Banez, Jay and Michelle Lewis, Tom and Judy MacDonald, and John and Margo MacQuarrie. [See updated letter with additional signers under comments below.]
Listen to an audio replay of the Tuesday, May 29, 2012, Commissioner Chat at Hopewell Baptist Church. Click the play button to start. Can’t see the player or hear the audio? CLICK HERE>
(MP3, 1 hour, 57 mins.)
0:00 to 13:15 – Welcome by Mayor John Woods and introductions
13:20 – Red Line – Brunson Russum asks for an update on the Red Line, and Mayor Woods responds. He and other commissioners join the discussion, and answer additional questions about the Red Line.
27:40 – MI-Connection – Robert Tremblay compares the rail line to the MI-Connection Communications System, starting a discussion about the status of the town’s investment in the local high-speed network. Commissioner Laurie Venzon, who has been working on improving the agreement with Mooresville and oversight of the system, responds at length.
1:07:20 – Mental hospital – Chris Bradley scolds mayor John Woods, and turns the discussion to the proposed Carolinas HealthCare System mental health hospital on NC 73, saying some neighbors are frustrated about the plan.
1:57:30 – meeting ends