The opposing concerns of public safety and the dire need for more mental health care services in San Luis Obispo County will clash Thursday when the county Planning Commission hears a controversial proposal to build a psychiatric hospital in Templeton.
Thursday’s hearing will be the first of at least two the commission will hold on the proposal by Carmel residents Harvey and Melanie Billig to build a 91-bed psychiatric hospital and a separate 60-bed live-in memory care facility on a 5-acre lot across from Twin Cities Community Hospital.
The psychiatric hospital is designed to treat mental illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and eating disorders. It would not treat those suffering from substance abuse.
The hospital, which would be operated by a new company called Vizion Health LLC of North Carolina, would be divided into separate units for children, adolescents, and adults and seniors and is designed for short-term stays. The only other inpatient psychiatric facility in the area is the county’s 16-bed Psychiatric Health Facility in San Luis Obispo, which primarily serves low-income residents on Medi-Cal and does not take patients with private insurance.
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The proposal has divided the community. Opposition has focused on bringing large numbers of mentally ill patients into the community.
“Why should this facility for mentally deranged people be built in Templeton?” asked Templeton resident Virginia Johnson in a letter to the Planning Commission. “Undoubtedly, the owners of the property want to sell it at a huge profit, but let common sense prevail over private greed.”
A year ago, the Templeton Area Advisory Group, which makes recommendations to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, voted against the project in a meeting that drew about 250 attendees, the majority them opposing the facility. Opponents also say the facility will strain Templeton’s limited community services such as schools, transportation and water availability.
“Templeton is not the right location for this type of facility based on our size, resources and infrastructure,” said Zac and Anita Konopa of Templeton in a letter to the Planning Commission.
Supporters, including a newly-formed group called Concerned Citizens Preventing Unintended Consequences, say the facility is desperately needed because there is no such hospital in the county. Residents with health insurance who need psychiatric care must travel out of the county to get it. Melanie Billig said the facility will go a long way to meet a huge demand for mental health services in the county.
“Last year, the county transported 350 patients to hospitals from Los Angeles to Santa Rosa,” Billig said. State records show that 714 San Luis Obispo County residents were inpatients at psychiatric hospitals outside the county in 2014.
Supporters also argue that opposition is fueled mostly by stigma against mental illness.
“None of those opposing this treatment center would likely oppose a dialysis center or Alzheimer’s center,” said Stevia Wilson Shaw of Atascadero in a letter to the commission. “Their fear is that the ‘crazies’ will get them or their children, and it is unfounded.”
County authorities, including the Health Agency and Sheriff’s Office, agree. They say there is no security or safety risk to the community from the facility.
“This hospital is a voluntary facility that will not treat involuntary patients,” said Holly Phipps, county planner, in a staff report. “According to the Health Agency, this type of facility is needed in the county and no negative consequences to the community will occur.”
The psychiatric hospital is the last item on the Planning Commission’s agenda Thursday. Chairman Ken Topping has posted a public notice saying that the item will be heard no earlier than 11 a.m.
Phipps said the item’s schedule calls for a staff report outlining the project, followed by a report from the applicants and then public comment. Another hearing is scheduled for Jan. 14, at which the Planning Commission will deliberately and possibly make a decision.
Melanie Billig said she is optimistic the Planning Commission will approve the project. She said the facility complies with all of the county’s zoning and land-use regulations
“I think we are in very good shape,” she said, “and we have tried to work to develop a project that is a tribute to the county.”
Whatever the commission decides is sure to be appealed to the county’s Board of Supervisors.