North Carolina senators push forward to cancel Dix deal

  • Posted: Friday, March 22, 2013 12:24 a.m.

RALEIGH (AP) — A North Carolina Senate panel recommended Thursday that a deal to lease the grounds of the now-closed Dorothea Dix mental hospital to the city of Raleigh be torn up and renegotiated.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cancel the 75-year agreement approved in December by the Council of State and finalized by Democratic Gov. Beverly Perdue just before she left office. The city wants to turn the land into a regional park.

Republican legislative leaders have complained the lease terms were not good for the state, generating only up to $68 million over time. They also said the transaction doesn’t direct funds be earmarked for mental health treatment, in keeping with purpose of the hospital that sat on the property for more than 150 years.

They wanted Perdue to delay the lease until she left office so legislators and new GOP Gov. Pat McCrory could review it. One option presented by legislative analysts in December had the property being leased for more than three times the current rate.

“This was a lame-duck deal done by a lame-duck governor,” Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Union, one of the bill’s primary sponsors.

He said the state basically gave away one of the state’s most valuable properties, located on a hill overlooking downtown Raleigh.

The bill directs state officials to use condemnation powers to end the lease agreement and give the city first dibs on a renegotiated lease — but only on part of the 325-acre property and at a fair market rate. A 2007 state plan for the property envisioned using part of the land as a campus for workers at the Department of Health and Human Services. About 1,800 department workers currently work there. The lease finalized by Perdue would have the workers gone from the site within 15 years.

Park boosters and city officials have labeled the project a “destination park” similar to those in Atlanta and New York that will also preserve green space and boost the quality of life in the fast-growing Triangle. They say a smaller park — perhaps 200 acres — won’t fit their plans.

“We have a contract with the state of North Carolina — a legitimately negotiated, signed, sealed, delivered contract — and they have a moral obligation to fulfill their contractual duties,” Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said.

The bill now goes to the Senate. It would also have to pass the House before going to McCrory, who also had urged a take-it-slow approach with the lease. Any retooled lease agreement also would have to be approved by the Council, where six of the 10 members are Democrats.

Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, who opposed the bill, said lawmakers can’t be voiding agreements simply because they didn’t like the governor who created them. “This is insane. The people of this state deserve a little continuity of government.”

Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, another bill sponsor, said he’d be fighting the lease if McCrory had entered it. Authority for the acquisition of the land in 1848 was granted for the benefit of North Carolina residents with mental illness, according to the bill.

“The state will honor the intent of that gift moving forward,” Hise said.

The debate got heated after Jim Goodmon, a leader in the Dix Visionaries group pushing the regional park, spoke.

“The notion that you can come in and take a lease and just say ‘well, no we’re not going to do it,’ is remarkable,” said Goodmon, who is also president and chief executive of Capitol Broadcasting Co., the parent of WRAL-TV. He added: “This doesn’t make sense and it is not honorable.”

Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, said he thought lawmakers had “been somewhat intimidated with the comments made by Capitol Broadcasting.”

“I felt threatened by you, sir, when you said your ownership of Capitol Broadcasting,” Apodaca said.

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