Sue McDougall's husband and mother had just suffered strokes when the family moved to the quiet hillside neighborhood along Bastanchury Road 2 1/2 years ago, so the quaint, terra-cotta roofed hospital just up the block gave her peace of mind.
"I felt comfort being able to walk to a hospital if there was an emergency," said McDougall, who does not drive. "I used to brag about it."
She's not bragging any more.
Nowadays, McDougall and many other residents who live around the old St. Jude Hospital site live in fear over the ongoing conversion of the facility into a psychiatric hospital that will treat depression and other mental illnesses.
"We're afraid of people with severe mental problems being in an area like this with children and three schools nearby," McDougall said.
More than 200 people have signed a petition opposing the conversion of the old hospital in the 16000 block of Bastanchury Road. On Saturday, about a half-dozen hospital opponents picketed in front of the facility during an open house organized to alleviate concerns and attended by more than 100 residents.
At the last Yorba Linda City Council meeting, residents opposed to the psychiatric hospital asked the council to do what it could to block to conversion.
Opponents have written letters to local schools and churches concerning the project and plan to take the issue back to the council, said Steven Brunette, who lives a few blocks from the site.
But city officials said there is little Yorba Linda can do to block the opening of the 80-bed facility, scheduled for mid-February.
Because state law prohibits cities from making distinctions between psychiatric facilities and other types of hospitals, the conversion does not violate the conditional use permit granted when the facility was a general hospital, according to Phillip Paxton, community development director.
First word of the conversion came in early November when the hospital, on the corner of Bastanchury Road and Rose Drive, was sold by Orange-based St. Joseph Health System to National Medical Enterprises of Santa Monica.
NME runs 61 psychiatric hospitals across the United States, including the Los Altos Hospital and Health Center in Long Beach, according to Sandra L. Horowitz, vice president for development at Specialty Hospital Group, an NME subsidiary.
St. Jude closed its doors Nov. 14, when preparations began for the conversion to the new Yorba Hills Hospital.
Thomas R. Mesa, administrator at both Los Altos and Yorba Hills hospitals, said the facility will treat people who suffer from depression, chemical dependency and eating disorders.
Patients stay at the hospital an average of 22 days and go through treatment programs that include therapy sessions, education programs, family visits and the prescription of some drugs under the supervision of a physician, he said. Treatment fees run at about $600 a day, not including professional fees, he said.
"For most of our patients, this is a timeout," Mesa said. "It's a time to sort out their lives."
But many residents who live around Yorba Hills say their lives will be filled with anxiety if the conversion occurs.
Virginia Cosper, who regularly walks her dog past the hospital, said she couldn't believe it when she learned the site was going to be turned into a mental health center.
"It was totally obvious that it is not secure. I can't see how it can be properly secured," she said.
While Cosper and other residents agree there is need for such a facility, they question the wisdom of placing patients who could be unpredictable and in some cases even violent in a suburban setting around homes and schools. They are also concerned about patients who have just been released from the facility.
"If someone wanted to get out of that hospital quickly, they would get off the main street and onto a cul-de-sac," McDougall said.
While Yorba Hills will have door alarms and a security guard, Mesa said the hospital will be just as concerned about restricting bad elements from entering the hospital as keeping the patients inside.
He also emphasized that seriously ill or violent people are kept out of the hospital by a strict admissions process that screens more patients out than it allows in.
"We are not a state hospital or a jail," Mesa said.
Hospital officials and at least one councilman believed the Saturday open house and tour helped residents feel more comfortable about their new neighbor.
"I think this is a facility that every modern community in the 20th Century needs," said Councilman Irwin M. Fried, who attended the Saturday open house where he fielded questions from residents.
Several residents said they walked away from the open house feeling that the facility would not harm their neighborhood.
"We had a lot of questions answered. They satisfied me," said resident Bob Stewart.