NC Republicans seek to nix Dix property lease

Mar. 14, 2013 @ 04:54 PM

Republican legislators introduced bills Thursday that would essentially tear up a deal signed in December allowing the city of Raleigh to turn the grounds of a now-closed state mental hospital into a regional park.

House and Senate members filed companion bills that direct state officials to use its condemnation powers to end the 75-year 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.

Republican lawmakers say then-Gov. Beverly Perdue's administration rushed through the agreement, and that the $68 million the state could receive over the decades from the city were too low.

Proceeds from the redrawn lease would be earmarked for mental health programs, in keeping with the purpose of Dorothea Dix Hospital, which stood on a hill overlooking Raleigh for more than 150 years.

"This bill offers a fair solution that balances the needs and interests of our state's mental health community, the City of Raleigh and all North Carolina taxpayers," Sen. Ralph Hise, R-Mitchell, one of the Senate bill's chief sponsors, said in a statement.

The Council of State, a 10-member panel made up of the governor, lieutenant governor and eight other statewide elected officials, agreed to the lease terms in early December. The final document was signed a week before Perdue, a Democrat, left office.

The city seems ready to fight the effort. Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said in a statement that she expects "the legislature to honor the lease preserving Dorothea Dix Park as approved" by the city and the Council of State. "My office will work to protect the lease agreement that was made in good faith with the state of North Carolina," she added.

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.

Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, was one of the harshest critics of the agreement, repeatedly accusing Perdue of putting her legacy before ensuring a financially sound agreement for the state. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg, also said late last year the lease should not be rushed.

The two bills also would preserve a portion of the tract to consolidate 2,500 employees of the Department of Health and Human Services at one location. State workers already are strewn in several aging buildings across the campus. The current agreement allows workers to remain there for up to 15 years while the state finds other work space. Lease payments are decreased while workers remain on campus.

Any legislation would have to be signed by Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican who took office in January. He also urged a take-it-slow approach as governor-elect. Any retooled lease agreement also would have to be approved by the Council, where six of the 10 members are Democrats.