Three and a half hours of often emotional testimony was the focus of a San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission hearing Thursday as the commission began considering a controversial proposal to build a psychiatric hospital in Templeton.
The commission made no decision Thursday and scheduled another hearing for Jan. 14. The hospital proposal will be the first item on that day’s agenda to allow the commission to devote the bulk of its time on it.
Carmel residents Harvey and Melanie Billig have applied to build a 91-bed psychiatric hospital and a separate 60-bed live-in memory care facility on a 5-acre vacant lot at 1155 Las Tablas Road, across from Twin Cities Community Hospital.
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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.
At the beginning of the hearing, Deputy County Counsel Whitney McDonald cautioned the commissioners to avoid discussing the fact that the hospital would serve people with mental illnesses. State and federal law consider mental illness a disability and therefore prohibit it from consideration when deciding land-use issues.
“I am cautioning you to keep that in the forefront of your mind,” she said. “You must consider this facility like you would any other hospital.”
Melanie Billig presented a petition containing the signatures of 940 San Luis Obispo County residents who support the facility.
Anne Robin, county behavioral health administrator, said the patients would be a combination of adults with private insurance and juveniles and seniors with Medi-Cal or Medicare.
The proposal has deeply divided the community. Opponents say the facility would be a safety risk because it would bring mentally unstable people into the community and overtax basic community services.
Supporters deny that the facility would pose a safety threat and point out that additional psychiatric beds are desperately needed in the county. Many of the supporters told emotional stories of dealing with family members with mental illnesses and having to drive out of the county to get treatment, often to Vista del Mar Behavioral Healthcare Hospital in Ventura.
More than 60 people signed up to give public testimony. Supporters, wearing lime-green ribbons, outnumbered the opponents.
“Mental health issues are common,” said Joseph Johnson of San Luis Obispo. “Stigma is what holds people back from getting the help they need.”
“The proposed mental health hospital will result in a healthier community and a better place to live,” Susan Armstrong of Templeton said.
Opponents, mostly from Templeton, repeatedly expressed concerns about public safety and the possibility of a person with a mental illness walking away from the hospital.
“It only takes one person to wander into my backyard and I’m upset about that,” Marcus Smith of Templeton said. “We are too small a community to take on this kind of a responsibility.”
Pamela Jardini, a consultant representing the Billigs, denied that patients would be able to just walk out at any time. Entrance to and exit from the facility would be tightly controlled.
“This is a voluntary facility, but it is also a secure facility,” Jardini said.
Opponents, unconvinced, expressed concern about impacts the hospital would have on public services such as traffic, police and schools.
“Patients in the adult facility could potentially leave it against medical advice,” Bruce Baird of Templeton said. “Our community is ill-quipped to receive the size of the facility proposed today.”
When the Planning Commission takes up the item again Jan. 14, it will hear more public comment and begin deliberations. Any decision can be appealed to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.