San Luis Obispo Tribune
By David Sneed
In spite of intense local opposition, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission on Thursday unanimously approved a proposed psychiatric hospital in Templeton.
However, the approval is likely to be preliminary because the decision can be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors. Given the contentiousness of the issue, an appeal is all but certain.
The five-hour hearing featured more than two hours of public comment split between those who support the hospital because of the desperate need for more mental health treatment facilities in the county and opponents who were concerned about the impacts the facility would have on the quality of life and community services of Templeton.
The meeting was the second on the proposal; the Planning Commission also heard hours of emotional testimony at its first hearing on the project in December.
After extensive questioning of the project’s proponents about a wide range of issues — including parking, access and flooding risks — the commissioners said Thursday that the hospital deserved to be approved.
“There is a critical need for this kind of facility,” Commissioner Ken Topping said. “It would fill a countywide gap. To me, there are more pluses than minuses on this project, so I am willing to support it.”
The other commissioners agreed, saying the project had been thoroughly vetted and met all of the county’s planning regulations.
“These facilities are very important to those who need them,” Commissioner Jim Harrison said. “I support this the way it is.”
Carmel residents Harvey and Melanie Billig applied to build the hospital on Las Tablas Road on a vacant 5-acre lot across the street from Twin Cities Community Hospital. The psychiatric hospital would have 91 beds, and a separate live-in memory care facility would have 60 beds.
The psychiatric hospital is designed to treat mental illnesses, such as depression, schizophrenia, and eating disorders among adults, children and seniors. It would not treat those suffering from substance abuse.
Opponents are Templeton residents who are concerned that the facility is too large for the lot and the community, and who say it will attract people with mental illnesses from all over the state, overburdening available community services. Many asked that the commission require an environmental impact report be prepared rather than the much less detailed mitigated negative declaration that was approved.
“The project for the lot and the facility is too large for what the specific need is in the community,” said Gwen Pelfrey of Templeton.
There was also concern that patients could leave the facility at will and endanger the community.
“This will not be a secure facility,” said Fred Russell of Templeton. “People can come and go as they like.”
Supporters of the hospital disagreed that the facility would pose any danger to the community. Many shared emotional stories of the toll mental illness can take on families, particularly if they have to be transported to hospitals outside the county, such as Vista Del Mar Behavioral Healthcare Hospital in Ventura.
“The fact is that the mentally ill already live among us as our friends and family and the homeless and, regrettably, our veterans,” said Klaus Schumann of Paso Robles.
Leslie Halls of San Luis Obispo said any other kind of health care facility at the site would not garner the same kind of concern.
“We have Atascadero State Hospital and the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, and I don’t think that any of those facilities have destroyed our community.”
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