By DAVID BORAKS
Carolinas HealthCare System showed detailed plans for its proposed $36 million behavioral health hospital off N.C. 73 and the town manager presented new data on the project’s economic impact at a forum Thursday night. But opponents said afterward they’re still prepared to sue to stop the project if the town doesn’t halt it and give residents a chance to appeal.
|THE HOSPITAL PROJECT
Carolinas HealthCare System announced May 9 it plans to build the 66-bed hospital on 23 acres in the former Davidson East development, off N.C. 73/Davidson-Concord Road. CHS is buying the 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 NC 115 and Verhoeff Road.
The site also would get a second, 10,000-square-foot medical office building under the healthcare system’s proposal. CHS officials say the two buildings could be expanded to meet future need, though they would require state approval. They’ve said previously that they most likely would seek to add beds for children.
CHS officials said Thursday the hospital system – not the town – would bear the cost of sewer and water lines to serve the site. Those lines would bring service into the development and also could supply future projects at the site. They’ll spend $475,000 to install a sewer line and $121,000 to bring water into the site.
CHS hopes to break ground by the end of this year, and to open the new hospital by the end of 2013, according to Mary Beth Kuzmanovich, vice president for facilities at Carolinas HealthCare System.
About 100 people, including citizens, hospital and town officials and reporters, packed the Davidson United Methodist Church chapel on South Main Street for the session. Besides the hospital officials and the town manager, the audience also heard presentations from mental health advocates and from an opposition group calling itself Due Process Davidson. That group lists a small number of property owners, but one member said there are “around 50 active families.”
Chris Bradley of Dembridge Drive spoke on behalf of the citizens group. He acknowledged that the area needs a mental hospital like this one. But as he argued for stopping the project, he said CHS has other land it could use instead of the 23 acres it is buying in the former Davidson East development, off N.C.
“This is not the only piece of real estate available for this project. So if it goes away, it does not mean the need is not going to be met,” he said.
He reviewed Davidson’s fiscal situation, noting that the town budget has been severely strained by yearly subsidies to the money-losing local cable TV system, MI-Connection, which the town owns with Mooresville. He said Davidson can’t afford to allow a development by a non-profit organization, which will not pay property taxes. He said the town would lose $1.2 million in property taxes.
Davidson officials have said the new “flex campus” zoning for the site adopted in 2011 allows for a hospital, so the project does not need Town Board approval. But Mr. Bradley argued the town’s zoning rules are “inconsistent at best.”
Town officials and consultants also say the project will bring temporary construction jobs and permanent employees to town, and could jump-start development in the N.C. 73 area. But Mr. Bradley disputed that as well.
He said the citizens’ concern is not the facility but the process. “From our perspective, this is not a NIMBY issue. This is about leadership, decision-making and due process, and this is about citizens having a voice in that process,” Mr. Bradley said.
TOWN SEES POSITIVE IMPACT
Earlier, Town Manager Leamon Brice said the 2011 zoning that allowed offices and commercial development on the site is part of a broad strategy by the town to create an “employment center” along N.C. 73.
Citing a just-completed economic impact study by Chapel Hill consultants DPFG Inc., he said the project would have a major positive impact on the local economy, bringing 155 permanent jobs, and 411 temporary positions, including construction jobs. That brings salaries and local spending, he said.
“It generates a $58 million boost in the economy, just in the construction,” Mr. Brice said. He also noted that the 155 positions at the hospital would pay an average of $55,000 annually, and an annual payroll of $11 million, though he acknowledged some employees might not live in Davidson.
He said 238 additional residents could be expected in the area, and the project could spur nearby retail development. Even though the nonprofit CHS will not pay property taxes, the impact of additional development and local spending by these employees could generate $147,000 a year in additional sales and other tax revenue for the town, Mr. Brice said.
Some opponents worry the new hospital might strain the town’s police and fire departments. Mr. Brice said the town has compared this facility to one CHS operates off Randolph Road in Charlotte, and predicts the hospital would create only an average of three additional police calls and 1.5 additional fire and medical calls per week. That wouldn’t require any new personnel, he said.
The town also analyzed property values around the Randolph site. Using the 2011 county revaluation as a measure, Mr. Brice said single-family homes near the Randolph site gained an average 17 percent in value. The gain was higher than the county average property value increase of 15.8 percent, he said, though lower than Davidson’s average gain of 21 percent.
“Our conclusions would be that the CHS facility complies with our comprehensive plan, the town board goals and the planning ordinance; that it provides significant economic impact for the area; that it creates no significant impact on public safety services; and that there’s no projected diminution of property values,” Mr. Brice said.
FILLING A NEED
Thursday’s presentations concluded with comments from mental health advocates who argued that the facility is badly needed, and that Davidson is the right place for it.
Jennifer Sidden of Davidson told a moving story about her family’s encounter with a mental-health system that lacks the facilities to help people like her sister, who is battling depression and bipolar disorder. She described the family’s search and wait for a bed at an in-patient hospital like the one coming to Davidson. After two stints in mental hospitals 45 minutes and 2 hours away, her sister finally was admitted to one in Charlotte.
“I’m praying that before long she’ll be back to work and back to life again,” Ms. Sidden said. She said it has been a 15-year-struggle for the family, and she knows the time may come again when her sister needs in-patient care. “That’s why I’m so grateful that Davidson has embraced this project.”
Dr. Jason Batley, a Davidson resident, noted that patients often face long waits for beds in mental hospitals. “Most hospitals in this region are not equipped to deal with in-patient psychiatric care,” he said. Yet many patients end up in general emergency rooms. He told the story about one patient who was stuck in his hospital’s emergency room for three weeks while officials searched for a bed.
He said the problem doesn’t just create a hardship for those with mental health issues; It affects anyone who uses an emergency room. In 2011, he said, more than 200 patients in North Carolina waited more than a week in an emergency room for mental health care. “It contributes to long waits in the ER,” he said.
OPPONENTS WANT A HALT
Mr. Bradley praised CHS during the meeting for providing information about the new hospital. But he said afterward that opponents aren’t swayed, and still want the town to respond to their concerns. “Some of the same questions we walked in with still haven’t been answered,” he told DavidsonNews.net.
During the meeting and afterward Mr. Bradley and another resident, John McCrory, expressed dissatisfaction that the project is going forward, and both suggested that opponents could take legal action.
It’s not clear what argument they might try to make. Mr. Bradley wouldn’t be specific. “We’ve met with attorneys that specialize in municipal issues. And we have a couple of routes that we could go,” he said.
Town planning officials and the town attorney have ruled that the facility is allowed “by right,” under current zoning. A lawsuit might seek to challenge that opinion.
Or the group could argue that there were flaws in the town’s planning process. Although Mr. Bradley does not live adjacent to the site, he said other property owners nearby have complained they weren’t properly notified of the project and didn’t have a chance to file a formal appeal.
Town officials said Thursday night that they did notify all property owners as required by law.
Mr. Bradley said he plans to formally request that the mayor and town commissioners allow seven individual property owners near the site to appeal that zoning.
“I think we’ll put the ball squarely in their court and see what they do,” Mr. Bradley said.
RELATED DOCUMENTS & COVERAGE
July 12, 2012, Carolinas HealthCare System presentation, with site plans and renderings of proposed hospital (PDF)
July 12, 2012, Town of Davidson presentation on economic impact of the proposed CHS mental health hospital. (PDF)
July 12, 2012, Due Process Davidson presentation about the proposed hospital. (PDF)
Previous DavidsonNews.net coverage of the Carolinas HealthCare system behavioral health hospital plans.