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Delaware County considered placing a mental health facility near a planned park. The council faced severe backlash.

Philadelphia Inquirer - 6/19/2024

Jun. 19—Nearly every seat was taken in Delaware County Council's chambers one evening earlier this month as dozens of residents signed up to address members.

The group had been packing council meetings for weeks, since officials disclosed they were considering county-owned land just off Interstate 476 along Sproul Road in Marple Township for a mental health facility.

The community members were angry that such a facility could be placed on land where the county planned to open a large public park, known as Delco Woods. The council members also heard from residents who believed, without evidence, that they planned to house undocumented immigrants on the property.

"You have a constituency of none in Marple who support this," one resident said.

The county ultimately announced last week that it wouldn't move forward with the site due to funding issues and would continue looking for other locations. But the saga underscored the challenges the county is facing as it seeks to expand mental health treatment, with structural and societal barriers that are exacerbated by stigma surrounding mental health challenges and political polarization.

And the backlash comes as Delaware County, like communities across the country, is facing a growing need for mental health care.

"Everybody knows that we need this service but nobody wants it in their community," said Sandra Garrison, director of Delaware County Human Services.

A facility at Delco Woods

Delaware County, where Democrats have led county government since 2020, has been seeking for years to build a new, 16-bed long-term residential mental health facility. Officials began searching for a site in 2021 but, according to a statement from the county, the need was made more critical by the closure of beds at Norristown State Hospital.

The county currently has a contract with Merakey Delaware County for 16 beds in a similar facility. Officials declined to share its location.

But in the last three years, council members say, they've struck out time and again as they assessed 25 potential sites for the new facility, confronting issues with zoning, cost, and potential deals falling through.

"It's just always been something," Councilmember Christine Reuther said.

County officials had scouted locations quietly, but the search drew public attention in April, when Marple Township changed its zoning to prohibit anything but open space at a long-vacant property formerly owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The property, next to Cardinal O'Hara High School, previously held Don Guanella Village, a home for developmentally disabled men, and is predominantly forest land. Delaware County claimed the land by eminent domain in 2021 after years of fights over the future of the property.

The county challenged Marple's zoning change in court and disclosed that it was considering a piece of the 213-acre plot of land for a small mental health facility by using existing buildings on the property.

Marple Township Commissioner Joseph Rufo said many residents felt lied to when they learned about the proposal.

"We were disappointed because we were looking forward to the park and the open space," Rufo said.

When the county announced that it would not move forward with the mental health facility, its statement said it would still pursue the lawsuit to preserve its rights to the land.

At the June 6 council meeting, Councilmember Kevin Madden explained that Delco Woods was an option because it was zoned for institutional use and it was already owned by the county. He insisted the majority of the property would still be used as a park.

Public backlash

Those opposed to the Delco Woods site also cited fears that a mental health facility would create safety concerns, and some cited the unsubstantiated claims that it would be used to house undocumented immigrants.

"Some of what we've experienced isn't about mental health, it's about the 2024 election," Reuther said. "The extent what we're experiencing is about mental health, it reflects a fear people have which is not a reality. And that's one of the challenges that comes from the fact that mental health and mental illness has lived in the shadows."

Charlie Alexander, a Marple resident who has publicly accused county council of intending to house undocumented immigrants, said he had no proof of the allegation. But he said he believed he was right because of council members' behavior, including claims that he's motivated by partisan politics.

"This is literally just another one of their deflections because they do not have a leg to stand on in anything that I say," he said.

Aurelie Baradic, a Delaware County resident who opposed the Delco Woods proposal, said she is a Democrat but believed that it was inappropriate that county officials assumed anyone who opposed the facility was against offering mental health treatment.

"There's going to be a lot of people who are just really disillusioned about this," Baradic said.

One woman at the council meeting suggested that a park and mental health facility could coexist.

"Such a facility would address an urgent public health need," she said.

Even after the announcement that the Delco Woods site wasn't viable for a mental health facility, community members remained suspicious about their plans at the site.

Alexander pointed to the county's plan to continue fighting Marple's zoning as proof there are plans for the space other than a mental health facility.

"It doesn't really matter what I say, or what any of us say, they view us with a 'D' over our heads and they don't trust what we say," Madden said of the ongoing distrust of county council.

Finding a new option

When the county announced that Delco Woods was no longer a potential site for the facility, officials didn't cite the community backlash.

Instead, they said the property wasn't viable due to the condition of the building and projected cost of renovations.

Reuther said that Fair Acres Geriatric Center, the county-owned nursing home in Middletown Township, had been considered but that location may also be too expensive.

Council members said there are about four other options under consideration, but declined to disclose them.

"I think it's in our best interest to really have a, I guess, a communications plan around, once we do find a site, and making sure that we're getting the facts out," Council Chair Monica Taylor said. She noted that the county's existing facility has caused little drama.

Councilmember Elaine Schaefer, who was the sole person on council against the use of Delco Woods, said she felt the opposition at that site was unique and wouldn't be repeated.

"The backlash here was only somewhat because the building is the type of building. It was really more about the unexpected change in direction of what was going to be the future of that park," she said.

But other council members are less certain. Reuther pointed to community frustrations over mental health and homeless housing across the Philadelphia region.

"People have a perception that's been built over decades of what people think mental health services are and who the individuals are that are experiencing mental health needs," Taylor said. "A lot of those perceptions are not based in reality."

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