Supporters of Dix park appeal to Wake lawmakers

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMarch 25, 2013 

  • The lease

    Under the lease signed in December by outgoing Gov. Bev Perdue and Raleigh officials, the state retains ownership of the Dorothea Dix property; the city pays $500,000 a year, plus 1.5 percent annual increases, in a deal worth $68 million over 75 years.

    Opponents of the lease point to an $84 million appraisal done in 2011 as the land’s true value, and they want Raleigh’s payments to reflect that. They say the legislature is merely exercising its ability to take back the land under the terms of the lease.

    Park proponents say the lease is fair and the $84 million figure represents the value of the land for development, not for a park.

    If the bill passes, the lease could wind up in court. Raleigh leaders are already in talks with attorneys.

  • Controversial bills target Wake

    Here’s where the bills opposed by Wake County residents Monday stand in the N.C. General Assembly:

    • Dorothea Dix park lease (House Bill 319, Senate Bill 334) – Expected to be heard by the full Senate on Tuesday. House version is in the Finance Committee. • Wake school board bills (Senate Bill 236, Senate Bill 325) – Awaiting hearings by Senate committees • Municipal housing standards bill (House Bill 150) – Passed House last week, scheduled for Senate hearing this week

— Supporters of the Dorothea Dix park plans turned out in droves Monday afternoon to oppose Republican legislators’ efforts to revoke the city’s lease on the prime real estate near downtown.

About 300 people packed a hearing before Wake County’s legislative delegation, with others forced to listen from the hallway. Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, called the crowd “unprecedented.”

“You’ve thrown cold water in the face of North Carolina, and we are awake,” Tina Govan, a Raleigh architect, told the legislators, blasting the Dix park bill as well as efforts to weaken the power of the Wake school board and cities’ power to enforce housing standards. “Why are you meddling in the affairs of Wake County?”

Many of the speakers argued that the state shouldn’t void the lease signed three months ago by former Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.

Harvey Schmitt, president of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, said sidelining the park plan “would be detrimental to the state’s continued growth and development.”

Sponsors of Senate Bill 334 say that Perdue gave the state a bad deal and called her final major act “illegitimate.” The bill, which is scheduled to be debated on the Senate floor Tuesday, calls for locating the Department of Health and Human Services offices on the Dix property and leasing the rest to Raleigh at “fair market value.” Proceeds would be dedicated to mental health.

That argument resonated with advocates for the mentally ill.

“I believe the last-minute deal to lease the land ignores the needs of people with mental illness,” said Ann Akland, a board member of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI. “A new deal for appropriating the Dix land at fair market value will not solve the problem, but it will help.”

Other NAMI members argued that the state never should have closed the Dix psychiatric hospital – a position that won support from freshman Republican Rep. Jim Fulghum, a Raleigh doctor. Before the hearing began, he suggested his GOP colleagues add a provision to their bill that would reopen a psychiatric facility on the property.

“We have completely abandoned the cause Dorothea Dix championed in our state, turning our heads to those who cannot defend themselves,” Fulghum said. “Is there no middle ground here for people to find a solution? Surely in those remaining 320 acres, there can be plenty of room for Raleigh to develop a park while leaving room for (the state’s Department of Health and Human Services) and the mentally ill.”

But park advocate Sig Hutchinson said the need for better mental health care is a separate issue. “The new concern about mental health is just a smoke screen,” Hutchinson said. “If you really care about mental health, fund it properly, including funds from this lease.”

Others argued that it’s too late to change the lease and the state must keep its word. “As a businessman who is bound by his word, it is appalling ... is this the image you want of our state?” said O. Temple Sloan, chairman of General Parts International and chairman of the board at Highwoods Properties.. “I urge you to drop this attempt to void this agreement.”

Sloan and Hutchinson had plenty of company. When one speaker asked supporters of the Dix park plan to stand, only a handful of people remained seated. “This is not a Republican vs. Democrat issue,” said Greg Poole, leader of the Dix Visionaries group.

And while the bill keeps the park possibility alive, it would allow only about 200 of the 325 acres – much of it in a flood plain – to be leased by the city.

To create a regional destination, park supporter Joseph Huberman said, “it’s important that the whole remaining campus be used to build this park.”

As the meeting wrapped up, Stein promised that the 45 people still waiting to speak would get a spot at the Wake delegation’s next meeting in two weeks’ time. But with the Dix bill – and several others that Monday’s speakers opposed – on the legislature’s agenda this week, the legislation could be well on its way to becoming law by then.

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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