Dix bill backers, opponents spar over deed’s words

ccampbell@newsobserver.comApril 8, 2013 

  • What’s next

    The bill to scrap Raleigh’s lease on the Dorothea Dix property passed the Senate less than two weeks after it was filed, but the House is taking a slower approach.

    The legislation has been referred to the House judiciary committee, chaired by Rep. Leo Daughtry, a Republican from Smithfield. Daughtry said the Dix bill isn’t on the agenda this week, and he wants to speak with both sides before taking action. He’s joined Republican Sen. Chad Barefoot of Wake County – who voted against the measure – in calling for a compromise.

    “I’m hoping the parties can arrive at some agreeable way to resolve this,” Daughtry said Friday.

    Meanwhile, Wake County residents will get another chance to sound off on the issue Monday. The county’s legislative delegation will host a hearing at 4 p.m. in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building, 300 N. Salisbury St.

    Last month’s hearing was cut off due to time constraints with nearly 50 speakers left on the list. They’ll have their say Monday, but no additional speakers will be allowed to sign up.

— A single line of faded cursive from the mid-19th century has taken center stage as state legislators consider revoking Raleigh’s 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 Carolina’s first psychiatric hospital.

The language is quoted in the Republican-sponsored bill that calls for renegotiating Raleigh’s 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 it’s time that we right that wrong.”

But opponents of the bill don’t 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 site’s 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 wouldn’t 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 that’s just a token in the mental health bucket. It doesn’t make a dent.”

The hospital’s 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 state’s mentally ill.

She presented her findings to the legislature, which agreed to establish the state’s 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 that’s since become the State Farmers Market and N.C. State’s Centennial Campus. Smith’s 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 Park’s 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 Pullen’s 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 legislature’s office of bill drafting also wouldn’t 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 Raleigh’s 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 Raleigh’s 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 Obama’s 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 didn’t 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 bill’s 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, it’s likely the 1850s deeds will again be part of the debate.

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

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