RALEIGH — A single line of faded cursive from the mid-19th century has taken center stage as state legislators consider revoking Raleighs lease on the Dorothea Dix property.
In trust for the use and benefit of the North Carolina State Hospital for the Insane appears in the first two deeds that transfer property for North Carolinas first psychiatric hospital.
The language is quoted in the Republican-sponsored bill that calls for renegotiating Raleighs park lease at fair market value and dedicating the money to mental health, while keeping land for Department of Health and Human Services offices.
This bill maintains the purpose outlined in the original deed from 1848, Sen. Louis Pate, R-Mount Olive, said when he introduced the legislation last month. On Dec. 28, 2012 (when the lease was signed), we departed from the vision those people had back in those times, and I believe its time that we right that wrong.
But opponents of the bill dont think the deed is a hurdle to creating a city park on the 325-acre site. They argue the legislature could easily honor both the lease and the sites legacy as a psychiatric hospital.
The General Assembly could direct the funding to the lease to go to mental health, said Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat. (The deed) was just a refuge behind which the Senate leadership was trying to hide.
Members of the National Alliance on Mental Illness have joined Republicans in backing the bill. They think the lease worth $68 million over 75 years undervalues the site and therefore wouldnt provide its full value to mental health care.
I think the deed has been violated because a fair price is not being paid for the land, NAMI-Wake member Louise Jordan said. I think thats just a token in the mental health bucket. It doesnt make a dent.
The hospitals origins
The controversial bill hearkens the 1848 General Assembly. That was the year mental health crusader Dorothea Dix visited North Carolina, touring 36 counties and cataloguing the poor conditions facing the states mentally ill.
She presented her findings to the legislature, which agreed to establish the states first psychiatric hospital. The laws from that year referenced in the bill appoint six hospital commissioners to find land for the facility. If the commissioners arrange for donated land, the law says, it would be received in trust for the use and benefit of the hospital.
The site they chose in 1850 came with a price $1,417.60 for 129 acres owned by Sylvester Smith. Smith sold the hospital an additional 12 acres in 1857 for $1,000. Both deeds contained the in trust language, which does not appear in the 16 deeds covering the remainder of the Dix property.
Those more recent purchases include land thats since become the State Farmers Market and N.C. States Centennial Campus. Smiths land is centered on the historic core of the campus, where the main hospital buildings stand.
A charitable trust?
Gerry Cohen, who advises the legislature on legal matters as its special counsel, said the wording appears to create a charitable trust. That would force property owners to come as close to the original purpose as possible. The (state) attorney general is one of those responsible for enforcing charitable trusts, he said. The heirs of the seller might be able to litigate.
But the deeds differ from a property restriction in effect across the street. Pullen Parks 1887 deed places that tract in trust for the uses and purposes of a public park. But the document goes further, explicitly banning Raleigh from selling the land or using it for any other function. That action would make the sale null and void and the land would revert to donor Richard Stanhope Pullens heirs.
In analyzing the Dix deed, Cohen referenced a legal opinion issued in 2004 by UNC-Chapel Hill law professor John Orth at legislators request.
Reached last week, Orth declined to discuss the opinion or provide a copy. The legislatures office of bill drafting also wouldnt release the document used in developing the current Dix bill citing legislative confidentiality.
Potential lawsuit looms
Regardless of what the deeds mean, opponents of revoking Raleighs lease say a revised measure would only make a small dent in the massive amounts of funding required for mental-health treatment in North Carolina.
Sen. Josh Stein, a Raleigh Democrat, estimates that the fair market value lease Republicans are seeking would generate $1.5 million a year more than Raleighs current lease.
He points out that the GOP rejected the expansion of Medicaid, a move intended to send a message to the federal government that North Carolina leaders want no part of President Barack Obamas health care law.
With that vote, Stein says his colleagues effectively gave up $1 billion in mental health funding over the next two years.
This is petty partisan politics, Stein said. They need a pretext to blow up a lease they didnt like.
If the bill passes, Sen. Blue thinks the Dix property proceeds it designates for mental health will instead get tied up in a lawsuit. I think the city has an open-and-shut case if they choose to pursue it, he said. The paybacks to the city would exceed $500,000 a year.
The bills sponsors say the state has the right to dump the lease, citing a condemnation clause in the document signed last September. But they added an amendment to send any lawsuit to a special three-judge panel.
If the dispute does land in court, its likely the 1850s deeds will again be part of the debate.
Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter