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Stigmatized: A behavioral health hospital proposed in Templeton receives abnormal scrutiny 

For many opposing a proposed behavioral health hospital in Templeton, there’s a lot wrong with the project.

Several Templeton residents have aired anything from “what if?” scenarios involving patients to worries over traffic and drainage impacts. Mental health advocates say the facility is sorely needed in an area with limited mental health services and that the opposition is more rooted in stigmatized fear than it is in concerns over impacts. Opponents say they’d support a much smaller project.

The project was approved Jan. 14 by the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission and will now be hashed out by the Board of Supervisors on March 15 following an appeal by Concerned Citizens Preventing Unintended Consequences.

The board needs to walk a sensitive path between considering land-use impacts and issues that involve the mentally ill, because considering impacts associated with prospective patients can make the county vulnerable to anti-discrimination lawsuits.

Those parameters cut through much of the criticism that’s been lobbed at the project proposed by retired eye surgeon-turned-developer Dr. Harvey Billig.

The proposed facility consists of two buildings planned for a vacant lot directly across from Twin Cities Community Hospital. The project fits with the area’s zoning, meets several of the setback and design requirements (aside from being a bit tall), and would join the growing portfolio of health facilities along Las Tablas Road.

It’s similar to two already approved projects. But unlike those projects, Billig’s project provoked an entire swath of the community to mount organized opposition.

It would come in two parts—a 70,419-square-foot, 91-bed acute care behavioral health facility offering short-term treatment, and a 36,503-square-foot, 60-bed memory care facility. The facilities would share a 4.9-acre  subdivided parcel. The behavioral health hospital would stand 44-feet tall, 9 feet higher than ordinance limits.

The Planning Commission considered some minor issues but unanimously decided that the community’s need for the project outweighed those impacts.

“There is a critical need for this type of facility. It’s unmet, and it needs to be met,” said Commissioner Don Campbell at the meeting. “The question is if not here, how and when will it be met?”

Two weeks later, the Planning Commission approved a similar project: the Templeton Medical Plaza LLC, which will consist of two 70,000 square foot buildings—including a 90-bed assisted living facility and a 67-bed independent living facility—and 10 four-unit, 2,650-square-foot bungalows on 8.2 acres. The project was also 44 feet tall.

The Templeton Area Advisory Group (TAAG) recommended that the project modify lighting and plant trees around the perimeter to shade the parking lot, and three neighbors spoke against it.

Another comparable project was approved in 2014 with support from TAAG and without any public comment during the final approval. Construction includes 42,400 square feet of commercial retail spaces; 62,700 square feet of office space; a 66,000-square-foot, 120-unit hotel; and two single-family residences on 15 acres. 

According to the staff report, TAAG raised some concerns about traffic impacts, the hotel’s height modification (43 feet, 9 inches), and drainage, and erosion. TAAG also said the site is “a good location for the type of project, is zoned appropriately, and can lead to a substantial benefit to the Templeton community, jobs, and tax base.”

The community generally supported other impact-laden projects as well, such as the expansion of the Twin Cities Community Hospital and the construction of the Trader Joe’s shopping center.

The behavioral health hospital, however, received a much different reception from TAAG, which voted 7-0 to oppose the project.

A letter from TAAG points to inconsistency with Templeton’s “community vision,” questions the project’s size, and highlights problems with drainage and topography, traffic, parking, public safety, zoning, and economic impact.

Longtime TAAG member Bill Pelfrey said that while some impacts may be comparable to other projects, the Billig project might be the one that eventually strains the area’s capacity to absorb those impacts.

“It’s not about the patients; this would be true of anything that has this amount of traffic created by it,” he said.

Asked why nobody raised any major concerns at that hearing for the Templeton Medical Plaza, Pelfrey’s wife, Gwen, who sits on the Templeton Community Services District Board of Directors, said that there are key differences between the two projects.

“[The Templeton Medical Plaza was] not trying to shoehorn a project in the way that the Billig project is trying to,” she said. “I don’t think any other project has had the community impact and the community public health and safety balancing issues that this project has had.”

While Pamela Jardini, Billig’s consultant, doesn’t necessarily agree with those assessments of the larger impacts, she does appreciate their input, and said they have “every right to appeal” the Planning Commission’s decision.

“There are some inconsistencies in their likes and dislikes of the project. Communities tend to get really passionate,” she said. “Something else is fueling their dislike of this project.” 

Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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