As Raleigh begins negotiations to turn the former Dorothea Dix property into a park, advocates for the mentally ill blasted the City Council on Tuesday for failing to consider in its plans the needs of people with mental illnesses.
The city is working with the state on a new lease or sale agreement for the 325-acre former psychiatric hospital campus near downtown Raleigh.
Pointing to the land’s historic use and the cost of an agreement to taxpayers, some speakers at a Tuesday council meeting called for a ballot referendum and public hearings.
“I am concerned about the process … you have used to try to acquire the Dix land,” said Louise Fisher, a longtime mental-health advocate whose daughter was a patient at Dix. “Secret meetings and no forums have left Raleigh residents with no voice.”
Fisher and others who spoke – some of whom were from the National Alliance on Mental Illness – said they were concerned by last week’s release of new appraisals and environmental reports.
“The appraisals failed to mention all the hazardous sites on the campus,” Fisher said, pointing to asbestos issues, medical waste dumps and underground oil drums.
A separate environmental study detailed many of those contamination concerns and said it would cost $765,602 to clean up the site for a park.
Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who has made the Dix park a top priority, said that she appreciates the concerns and will seek public input once the new deal is finalized.
“Then there will be a comprehensive master planning process for the park,” McFarlane said, adding that the planning will take several years. “We want all interested stakeholders to come and be part of the vision for what this property can be.”
But some said they want a say before the city shoulders the cost of acquiring the property, which has had appraisals ranging from $37.45 million to $66 million.
‘Green-coat park people’
Mental health advocate Hope Turlington said she thinks Dix Visionaries, a group of business leaders raising money for the park, is influencing the council, pointing to its recent TV commercial featuring McFarlane.
“The green-coat park people are coming to raise your taxes and take what already belongs to our sick and all of us in North Carolina,” she said. “It appears the mayor represents them and not all the people who voted her into office.”
McFarlane says the Visionaries group doesn’t have a role in the negotiations. “We do not have any planning activities underway with any stakeholders, and that includes the Dix Visionaries,” she said.
The mayor also pointed out that the choice isn’t between a park and a mental-health facility. State legislators voted to close Dix years ago and move patients to a newer facility in Butner. And though the state wants to keep up to 60 acres at Dix for Department of Health and Human Services offices, no treatment facilities are planned.
‘Don’t forget the people’
The city doesn’t provide mental-health services. But Ellen Betts Clemmer told the council the site should have space for affordable housing for the mentally ill or an outpatient treatment center.
“Please don’t forget the people who lived there and the people to whom this land has belonged,” she said.
Attorneys for the city and state have until June to reach a new agreement to replace the lease signed by then-Gov. Bev Perdue in 2012. A standstill agreement brokered by Gov. Pat McCrory will expire June 1, but city attorneys say that deadline could be extended.