Board votes down hospital
by Staff Writer
by Josh Lanier
The Huntersville town board voted down Monday, March 5, a proposed 66-bed behavioral health hospital after months of discussion, public hearings and forums. But many Monteith Place residents, the biggest opponents of the plans, said they weren’t ready to celebrate.
“We’ve won – for now,” a number of them said after the decision.
Several residents fear the hospital will again try to get the 17.35 acres at the corner of Verhoeff Drive and N.C. 115, which backs up to Monteith Place homes, rezoned.
Carolinas HealthCare System owns the land, but town statutes bar the company from requesting another rezoning for the property for at least a year, excluding a few exceptions like major infrastructure improvements to the site or if they make massive changes to the proposal.
Carolinas HealthCare System hasn’t discussed their plans for that property and said it’s too early to know what they’ll decide to do.
Mary Beth Kuzmanovich, a CHS vice president, said in a statement the company was “disappointed” by the decision.
“The services that would be housed at this proposed facility are critically needed in our community. The need will not disappear with the town’s actions this evening,” the statement read. “Carolinas HealthCare System will review all available options over the next few weeks, but it’s premature to say what the best option might be.”
A Carolinas Medical Center spokesman said he hoped to announce the hospital’s new plans in a couple of weeks.
Monday’s meeting was the most attended in recent memory. The standing room only crowd spilled into the hallway of town hall. And Huntersville commissioners said the decision was one of the most difficult they’d ever had to make.
Commissioner Ron Julian called it “heart-wrenching,” saying he understood the need but was still voting against it.
Julian, along with commissioners Charles Jeter, Charles Guignard and Sarah McAulay voted against the plans. Only Melinda Bales and Danny Phillips voted in favor of the hospital.
Bales said she was swayed by a recent trip she and Phillips took to CMC-Randolph, the behavioral health hospital run by Carolinas HealthCare System in south Charlotte. They sat in the parking lot and watched for three hours, walked around the facility and spoke with neighbors.
“It was very quiet,” she said. “It was very tranquil and not what I was expecting. … I have family with mental illness and I understand from that perspective the treatment they need. I want my kids and family to have access to that kind of care should they need it.”
Commissioners said they voted down the proposal for a number of reasons most notably the hospital’s failure to conform to the town’s long-term plans for that area.
But the planning board saw it differently. They voted last week 8-1 to approve the plans. Town staff has also been in favor of the hospital.
Monteith Place residents had claimed the hospital would become a public safety and traffic nightmare.
A stream of homeowners took to the podium Monday to beg commissioners to think of their children’s safety.
“My family is my biggest concern,” said Steve Owens, addressing the hospital employees in the front row. “… I’m not taking a bullet for you people because you didn’t have (another site selected for this hospital).”
Monteith Place Homeowners Association Board Member Brent Lewis said the board adamantly objected to the proposal.
“You’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole,” he said.
A number of Carolinas Medical Center doctors talked about the dire need for psychiatric help in the region and more than 100 jobs the hospital would create. Several others said commissioners shouldn’t vote because of fear and misconceptions of mental illness.
“There are plenty of opportunities for us to come in contact with risk factors other than being near a behavioral health hospital,” said Chelsea Ingram, a UNC Wilmington senior and Huntersville resident. “One in four people will come in contact with mental illness in their lives. Hopefully they’ll have a place like this to get help.”
Commissioner Jeter said the decision wasn’t as simple as it was being portrayed.
“It’s not ‘if we vote against it, it’s because of a stigma,’ and ‘if we vote for it we’re ignoring people’s fears,” he said. “It’s not that black and white. It never is.”