Mission Viejo Hospital Plan Under Debate : New Council Hears Testimony About Psychiatric Facility

Times Staff Writer

The Mission Viejo City Council, tackling one of its first controversial issues, heard testimony and were debating late into the night Monday over a hotly disputed proposal to build a psychiatric hospital next to residential neighborhoods in the planned community.

Officials for Charter Medical Corp. say their proposed 80-bed acute psychiatric care facility, planned for a five-acre parcel in the High Park Corporate Business Center, is needed to meet an increasing demand for such care in fast-growing south Orange County.

But opponents questioned the need and argued that the $11-million, three-story facility does not conform to the strict land-use requirements for the business park at Los Alisos Boulevard and Madero.

Called a Residential Use

Under the Mission Viejo Co.'s community master plan, the business park is supposed to include only light-industrial businesses. The hospital, planned to treat patients for stays as long as a month, would constitute a residential use, city planning director Clinton Sherrod told council members during a hearing of more than two hours, held for an appeal of prior approval of the project by the Orange County Planning Commission.

"We moved here because we were a planned community and certain things are supposed to be in certain places," said Sue Pons, co-president of the 500-home Seville Homeowners Assn. "I'm not against Charter Hospital at all. But to me it's an incompatible land use."

"A lot of us spent a lot of money to buy a house in Mission Viejo, thinking Mission Viejo had very stringent planning requirements," added Robert Luher, a former member of the board of directors for the 172-home Ridgemont Homeowners Assn. "We moved near a business park with the impression it would stay (as) we were told."

Ridgemont's other four board directors all have signed a letter endorsing the hospital, however.

"We feel, based on what we discovered, that Charter Hospital would make an excellent neighbor, be an asset to our community and enhance our property values," said the statement circulated to Ridgemont homeowners by directors Larry Belland, Wally Con, Patty Epstein and Frank Lee.

Luher moved out of the neighborhood two months ago to another home about two miles away in Mission Viejo.

Appeal Deferred to City

Last November, the Orange County Planning Commission voted 4 to 1 to approve the psychiatric hospital. However, opponents of the project--including the Mission Viejo Municipal Advisory Council (MAC), a leadership group before the city's incorporation, appealed the decision to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

Supervisors deferred a hearing on the appeal to the new city of Mission Viejo, which became incorporated effective March 31. Mayor Norman P. Murray and council members Victoria C. Jaffe and Christina W. Keena are former members of the MAC.

Before Monday's council meeting, Murray said his previous opposition to the hospital had not predisposed him to a decision on the fate of the proposal. He said he was prepared to listen to a presentation by Charter executives, as well as lengthy public testimony by citizens both for and against the project.

An overflow crowd of more than 80 people turned out at the meeting, many of them opposed to the hospital.

Sherrod recommended that the hospital project not be approved because it might create several problems, including a parking shortage. He also said there are unanswered questions about police protection.

Sherrod added that Charter has not adequately demonstrated a need for such a facility in Mission Viejo. Independent studies by opponents of the project have concluded that there is a surplus of beds for psychiatric care in south Orange County, while studies by Charter Hospital officials have concluded that there is a shortage.

Sherrod said that if Charter could not fill its rooms, the hospital could close, leaving a "blight" on the city, which would reduce surrounding property values.

But Bill Boice, West Coast director for Charter's Health Facilities Development, said Charter's market studies show there is a shortage of beds for acute psychiatric care, although there may be a surplus for chronic psychiatric care. He noted that the Mission Viejo facility would specialize in acute care.

Boice added, "We wouldn't be spending $11 million if we didn't think there was adequate demand."

Ray Brantley, a county planner who prepared a Nov. 10 report recommending approval by the Orange County Planning Commission, said Sherrod's concerns about parking and police protection are unfounded.

Brantley said the facility had plans for 140 parking spaces, 113 of which would be used for surplus parking. Brantley said Orange County Sheriff's Department officials he contacted during his review of the project told him that they had encountered no serious crime problems involving psychiatric hospitals.

In that county report, the Planning Commission concurred with Charter's assertion that the hospital would be compatible with other businesses in the industrial park, in that it would not create more noise and traffic problems than any of the other businesses. Other businesses in the park include a mini-storage facility, a day care center, a church and a medical office.

Officials of Charter Medical Corp., a Macon, Ga.-based conglomerate that operates 90 hospitals worldwide, said they have bent over backwards in recent months to accommodate their critics in Mission Viejo.

After residents voiced fear of the potential patients and concern that their property values would plummet, the company dropped plans to admit mental commitments, treat alcohol- and drug-abuse cases and take patients on walks through the surrounding neighborhoods, Boice said.

The people who would be treated, he said, would be admitting themselves for treatment of depression disorders, primarily.

"The people we treat are your proverbial next-door neighbors, who are seeking help voluntarily," Boice said.

Charter also acquiesced to complaints from area residents that the hospital's original design made it look too institutional, Boice said. The company responded by adding colors to the building and adding in some angles to make it more architecturally creative, he said.

Situated atop a small bluff above Los Alisos Blvd., the hospital would be practically out of sight from most surrounding neighborhoods, Boice said. He noted that the hospital building would only occupy 12% of the acreage, with the rest being devoted to parking space and green areas.

Boice said the hospital would prove an economic boon to Mission Viejo, funneling in about $15 million per year to the local economy in employment and taxes.

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