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Proposed mental health center to go before planning commission 

This facility is proposed to be built in vacant property on Las Tablas Road across from Twin Cities Community Hospital.

This facility is proposed to be built on vacant property on Las Tablas Road across from Twin Cities Community Hospital.

–More than a year after the Templeton Area Advisory Group voted 7-0 to reject a proposed mental health center to be built at 1155 Las Tablas Road across the street from Twin Cities Community Hospital, the project will go before the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission.

In October 2014, Jan Hochhauser, a principal of Hochhauser Blatter Architecture and Planning, said he expected the project to go before the board of supervisors in the first four months of 2015. Instead, it will go before the commission on Thursday, Dec. 10.

The request before the commission is to subdivide an existing 4.9-acre parcel into two parcels that are 1.46 and 3.44 acres, which includes a 70,419-square-foot behavioral health hospital with 91 beds. It also includes a modification to the height standards to allow for 44 feet from the average natural grade instead of the 35 feet permitted by ordinance. The project also includes a 60-bed memory care facility.

The proposed facility sparked controversy from people on both sides of the argument. Some feel such a facility is much-needed in the North County. “I don’t worry about people who are receiving treatment in a facility like this,” Atascadero United Methodist Church Pastor Diane Rehfield said, “I do worry about people who are in need of mental health treatment who never get the help they need.”

Opponents of the project acknowledge the need, but said they don’t think Templeton is the right location. They have formed the group, the Concerned Citizens Preventing Unintended Consequences. The group most recently held a community outreach meeting last Wednesday at Vineyard Elementary School in Templeton. They are concerned about potentially increased crime and safety issues surrounding the area because of mentally ill patients going to Templeton from other areas of the state. The group has about 25 active members, and 500 people have signed a petition against the project, reports say. The county’s planning department has received 462 pages of comments, letters and emails both for and against the proposed facility.

“I am a member of a local group that has organized in an effort to educate the public on the facts surrounding this proposal that have been unreported by the media and misrepresented to the public by the land owner-developer of the project and their supporters,” Templeton resident Murray Powell said. “To be clear, [we] do not oppose a mental care facility in the county. We support the establishment of a reasonable size facility designed to serve the needs of primarily South County residents. The proposed 91-bed size of the facility will handle at least 3,600 patients a year. Probably more. Current reliable data indicates that only 400 to 500 SLO County residents would be treated at the facility due to several constraints.”

Powell said he and the other members of the group opposing the facility, do not think such a hospital should be located in the North County, rather additional beds and facilities should be developed in the South County.

A group of a mental health hospital supporters has also informally formed. Atascadero resident Diane O’Neil gathered a group of supporters at the Atascadero United Methodist Church in October. While this group has collectively been writing letters to elected officials, county officials and the media, it has no formal name or website. O’Neil, who was president of NAMI San Gabriel Valley, a chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, had a child with mental illness when she lived in Pasadena. There, she said, he was hospitalized 27 times and was lucky there was a hospital nearby.

“[There are] no facilities for people who need to be hospitalized,” O’Neil said, adding that one out of four people suffer from some type of mental illness–even depression is considered a mental illness.

The planning commission’s decision could be appealed, at which time the issue would go before the SLO Board of Supervisors. Even if approved, the psychiatric hospital must be approved by state licensing authorities and be certified by Medicare and Medicaid before it can open.

The property is owned by Harvey and Melanie Billig of Carmel, who lived in the county from 1973 to 2000. Melanie Billig was mayor of the city of San Luis Obispo from 1981 to 1985. For safety, the patients will be locked in “care pods,” which are grouped by age: 6 to 12 years old, 13 to 18, 18 to 65 and 65 and older. All patients’ stays are voluntary and will last 8 to 10 days.

The hospital will not treat substance abuse, but will provide therapy and medication for depression, anxiety disorder, suicidal tendencies, schizophrenia, social phobias, eating disorders, post-traumatic street disorder in veterans and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.

The behavioral health hospital will be operated by Vizion Health, LLC. According to the Billigs, they chose Mark Schneider, the chief executive officer of Vizion Health, LLC, because they don’t want a large corporation to run the hospital. Schneider has more than 40 years in the mental health industry. The current plan is for the Billigs to develop and own the project and lease the property.

“This is a unique project, we have been involved in the designing of the facility, the size of the facility. A lot of times we don’t have that luxury,” Schneider said, adding that he and his staff are able to give input from their 40-plus years of experience working in the field. “This will be the newest psychiatric facility to be built in California in a long time.”

According to Vizion Health’s website, Schneider has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in nursing from the University of Florida. He has built, operated and managed psychiatric and physical rehabilitation facilities in 18 states. Vizion’s based in South Carolina, but Schneider splits his time between Louisiana and Florida.

The Concerned Citizens Preventing Unintended Consequences can be reached at info@intempleton.com and O’Neil at dianegoneil@mac.com.

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