RALEIGH — Efforts to establish Raleigh’s own Central Park took a big hit Thursday when a Senate appropriations committee voted to revoke a lease for the Dorothea Dix property signed by outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue, calling her last major act a “power grab.”
After a heated debate, the Republican-led committee approved the measure to take back the 325-acre Dorothea Dix hospital property, with a few Democrats dissenting.
Supporters of the bill argue that the state signed away the property for less than it’s worth, and they want to craft a new lease with Raleigh that reserves some of the land for state offices. The city could get about 200 acres for a park, much of it on a floodplain.
“This was a lame-duck deal done by a lame-duck governor,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Republican from Union County who co-sponsored the bill. “It was kind of an end run to the process. ... This is the point of the city taking property from state government – a power grab without question.”
Sen. Tom Apodaca, a Republican from Hendersonville, called Perdue’s action “illegitimate,” comparing it to late-night voting in the legislature.
Others said it sets a bad precedent for the state to invalidate both a 3-month-old lease and a governor’s final acts in office.
“This is just insane,” said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, a Democrat from Asheville. “The people of the state deserve a little continuity in government.”
Raleigh city councilors and business leaders – some of whom have pledged millions to develop the Dix park – said they were disappointed by the decision.
“We are appalled that our partner in a lease would decide that the lease is over,” said Jim Goodmon, a leader of the Dix Visionaries group and president of Capitol Broadcasting. “Nobody will enter into a long-term contract with the state if they don’t trust them.”
A pricier park
The bill’s sponsors said Raleigh can still have its park, but the price tag will be higher. Under the 2012 lease, the state retains ownership of the land; the city pays $500,000 a year, plus 1.5 percent annual increases, in a deal worth $68 million over 75 years.
Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from Spruce Pine, held up a 2011 appraisal for $84 million as the true value of the Dix property.
With even Democrats admitting that the bill is likely to pass, the debate turned to what the state might charge Raleigh in a replacement lease. Republican Sen. Neal Hunt of Raleigh said he wants the park to happen, and he proposed an amendment that would appraise the leasable tract as park and open space. Hise’s $84 million figure, he said, represents the property’s value for potential development.
“It’s simply going to smooth the process when we do go to renegotiate the lease,” Hunt said. “(The final appraisal) might be in the $10 million range.”
But Hunt’s fellow Republicans rejected the amendment, insisting that the change would devalue the state’s asset.
The Dix legacy
One justification made for revoking the lease is language in 156-year-old deed that dedicates the property to a psychiatric hospital.
Bill co-sponsor Sen. Louis Pate, a Republican from Mount Olive, said the state acquired the Dix tract “with the stipulation that it be for the mental health uses in our state.”
“We departed from the vision those people had back in those times, and I believe it’s time that we right that wrong,” Pate said.
The bill reserves any proceeds from a future lease for mental health services, and it keeps Department of Health and Human Services employees on the property. “This bill maintains the purpose outlined in the original deed from 1848,” Pate said.
There is no deed that dates to 1848; that’s the year the legislature agreed to found a psychiatric hospital. An 1857 deed – provided by Senate leader Phil Berger’s office – says the first 12-acre tract is “in trust for the use and benefit of the North Carolina State Hospital for the Insane.”
Democratic Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh pointed out that the state deviated from that purpose to build a new hospital in Butner and establish N.C. State’s Centennial Campus and the State Farmers Market on portions of the land.
“If you just want to dedicate the funds (from the lease), that’s all you’ve got to do,” Blue said. “If you really wanted to be concerned about the mentally ill, you would fund the multitude of programs that you’ve already got.”
The full Senate is scheduled to consider the measure Monday evening. If it passes both chambers and is signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, Raleigh’s lease will be history.
The Raleigh City Council is already looking at its options to take the issue to court. The council met behind closed doors for an hour Tuesday with lawyers, and City Attorney Tom McCormick attended Thursday’s Senate hearing. He declined to comment on whether breaking the lease justifies a lawsuit.
“If there’s something we can do legally, I would be in favor of moving forward in that direction,” Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said. “I think we have to fight for this.”
But Hise, one of the bill’s sponsors, said the state is merely exercising its ability to take back the land under the terms of the agreement.
“The matter is settled: It was part of the negotiation of the lease, and we are taking our rights within the lease,” Hise said.
Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter