Raleigh, N.C. — Dix Hill is a peaceful, windswept spot overlooking downtown Raleigh, belying the fierce battles being fought over its future.
State lawmakers are pushing legislation that would tear up a lease between the state and the capital city over the 325-acre property. City leaders and a group of private business leaders want to turn the bulk of the property into a destination park.
Republican leaders at the General Assembly said they may do a deal to create a park, but that the lease signed by Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, in the waning days of her term is unfair to the state and abandons the original intent of the property to serve North Carolina's mentally ill.
The earliest notions of building a state mental hospital can be traced back to the early 19th century. The first property purchased for what would become the hospital and Dorothea Dix campus came in 1850. At one point, the hospital and an associated farm made up more than 2,200 acres on the edge of downtown Raleigh. Pieces of that property have been parceled out to North Carolina State University.
The following is a selected timeline of the Dix property.
1825: "The earliest recorded instance of the State showing interest in the care of the mentally ill was a resolution passed by the General Assembly during the 1827-1828 sessions," writes Marjorie L. O’Rorke, the author of "Haven on the Hill," an extensive and definitive history of what became Dorothea Dix Hospital. Nothing came of that resolution.
1848: Dorothea Dix, already a well-known crusader for the mentally ill, comes to North Carolina. She conducts a survey of the conditions in which mentally ill patients are kept and reports to the General Assembly. She lobbies lawmakers for the creation of a state hospital.
Dec. 30, 1848: The state Senate takes final action to create a state hospital "for the insane" and sets aside $86,000 for its construction. A commission is established to find and buy property for the hospital.
June 4, 1850: The state hospital commission buys 129 acres from Sylvester Smith for $1,417.63. This first deed mentions the specific act of the General Assembly that creates a "State Hospital for the Insane." It is the first such deed to contain language that the property is being transferred "in trust for the use and benefit of the North Carolina State Hospital for the Insane."
It is unclear what force or effect that language would have more than 160 years later. However, lawmakers and legislative attorneys have pointed to it as possible hindrance to turning the the entire property over for use as a park. It is also possible that the "in trust" refers to the fact that the property was being turned over to individual members of the commission for safe keeping until the hospital is formally established.
Sept. 10, 1850: The commissioners buy 53 acres from Maria and Everard Hall for $527. The deed contains the same "in trust" language as the Smith deed from three months prior.
1851-1865: Construction of the hospital begins. Dix refuses to allow the project to be named in her honor but consents to calling the property Dix Hill in honor of her grandfather, Dr. Elijah Dix.
February 1856: The first patient is admitted to the state hospital.
May 19, 1857: The state executes a second deed with Smith, however it appears to be for the same 182 acres the original state hospital commissioners bought in 1850 from Smith and the Halls. The deed repeats the "in trust" language contained in the original deed.
Feb. 17, 1876: Another deed between Smith and the state appears to confirm the terms of the 1850 deal or expand the property slightly.
March, 29, 1907: The state adds 1,140 acres to the Dix property, purchasing a pair of parcels for farms from Elizabeth Grimes. The additional property is originally home to an epileptic colony, according to a history of the hospital on the Department of Health and Human Services web page.
1959: The hospital is officially named for Dorothea Dix.
1960s: The Dix property had grown to roughly 2,000 acres, although it wouldn't reach its apex until the 1970s. It was still attached to a farm. "The 1,853-acre hospital farm consisted of 832 acres of cropland, 287 of improved pasture land, 695 wooded acres, 26 acres of roads and lots and 13 acres of ponds," writes O’Rorke, in "Haven on the Hill."
Dec. 18, 1984: The state transfers 385 acres from the Dix campus to N.C. State, the first of at least two property transfers that will create the university's Centennial Campus. Although technically the land was transferred pursuant to an agreement between the Department of Administration and N.C. State, the transfer was made on the orders of Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat. Lawmakers did not formally object to the deal.
Feb. 26, 1985: Another 455 acres of former Dix property is transferred to N.C. State for Centennial Campus. Another 300 acres were transferred to the Department of Agriculture on the same date. Again, the transfer was technically done as an agreement between departments but was this time accomplished under the supervision of Gov. Jim Martin, a Republican.
June 12, 1992: The state transfers 733 acres of the Dix property for use by the Department of Agriculture at the State Farmers Market. This was another in a series of transfers that happened administratively, without much formal input from the General Assembly.
2000 through 2005: Mental Health reform takes hold in the state, with focus shifting to moving patients out of institutional settings. In 2000, a consultant's report recommends closing Dorothea Dix Hospital. Shortly thereafter, the hospital is slated for closure. In 2004, plans to close the campus take hold in earnest, with final closure expected to happen in 2007.
October 2006: Land use experts with the Urban Land Institute make recommendations to the General Assembly about the future use of the Dorothea Dix property. At this point, state leaders planned to close the hospital in 2008. The recommendation included using the property for a 200-acre park, a new home for DHHS and a retail town center that would be near the farmers market.
Oct. 10, 2006: The Friends of Dorothea Dix Park, an umbrella group representing 30 pro-park organizations, presents a plan for a 306-acre park on the Dix property.
July 30, 2007: Public Policy Polling releases a survey showing 53 percent of Raleigh voters would favor a bond referendum to help the city purchase the Dorothea Dix property from the state in order to turn it into a city park.
September 2010: DHHS announces that will close Dorothea Dix Hospital, moving patients to the new Central Regional Hospital in Butner. The department says the move will save $28 million per year.
December 2010: Dorothea Dix Hospital stops admitting most adult patients, with the exception of those ordered into psychiatric care by a court.
May 20, 2011: Appraisers working for the state fix the value of the property at $84 million. This appraisal compares the Dix property to land in Research Triangle Park and makes other assumptions that park proponents dispute. News reports say other appraisals estimate the value between $35 million and $50 million.
Oct. 6, 2011: Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker says that he would like the city and state to strike a deal for the Dix property before he leaves office. News reports from the time say that Meeker "has been in negotiations to turn the Dorothea Dix Hospital campus into a park similar to New York's Central Park when the mental health hospital eventually closes its doors and moves patients and operations to other state facilities."
April 11, 2012: An opponent of turning the Dix property into a destination park writes to the General Assembly, decrying the closure of the hospital. "Dix Visionaries ... stood way back and watched in gleeful anticipation as their vision for a destination park has miraculously become a real possibility."
April 13, 2012: Perdue writes to a constituent thanking him for interest in the Dix property and its possible future as a park. "I'm trying to convince your General Assembly delegation to work with me on this," the governor writes.
June 2012: House lawmakers pass a bill that says the Dix property may not be "sold, leased, rented or gifted without the prior approval of the General Assembly." The Senate never takes up the measure. Had they voted it into law, Perdue would have been prevented from entering into a deal to lease the property to the city.
July 2012: City leaders and state officials are negotiating over the possible sale of the Dix property to the city. In a letter dated July 31, 2012, City Manager J. Russell Allen expresses concerns over environmental problems in buildings on the property. He also anticipates the desire to save some historic buildings.
In another letter to Perdue, Dix Visionaries founder Greg Poole mentions that city leaders and the state are far apart on price. Relying on an earlier appraisal, the state is willing to sell for $85 million, while city leaders and park advocates were only willing to offer $35 million. "Two official appraisals are miles apart, and we are going to run out of time on your watch at the current pace," Poole writes to Perdue.
August 2012: The last patients leave Dorothea Dix Hospital.
September - October 2012: Correspondence from Perdue's office shows that conversations had shifted to a deal involving N.C. State. Under that plan, much of the Dix property would turn into a park. But there would also be a "Dix Campus Collaborative" on the site that would explore best practices that could be shared with health care providers throughout the state. Under this plan, the Endowment Fund of North Carolina State University would take ownership of the property, although the state would remain responsible for environmental hazards on the site. This plan falls apart at some point in the fall, although university leaders and the governor's office never fully explain why.
Nov. 26 and 27, 2012: The outlines of a potential deal with the City of Raleigh emerge. Legislative leaders object almost immediately, saying that Gov. Pat McCrory should have a chance to weigh in when he takes office in January.
Dec. 4, 2012: The Council of State and Raleigh City Council approve the terms of a lease for the Dorothea Dix property.
The lease calls for Raleigh to pay $500,000 per year to the state for at least 75 years, with a possible 24-year extension. The price for the lease would rise by 1.5 percent every year, but the city would get a discount for any property that the state is still using. Terms of the agreement allow the state to continue using a portion of the property for DHHS offices.
December 2012: Legislative leaders continue to object, saying the deal does not ask Raleigh and park backers to pay enough to the state.
Dec. 28, 2012: Perdue and Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane sign a lease turning the Dorothea Dix property over the the city so the bulk of it can be developed into a "destination park."
March 14, 2013: Lawmakers in the House and Senate file bills to undo the Dix park deal, saying that it did not protect the interest of taxpayers.
March 26, 2013: The state Senate passes the bill undoing the Dorothea Dix lease, sending the measure the House. Four Republicans – three from Wake County – joined all Democrats in voting against the measure.
April 2013: House members are considering what action to take with regard to the Dix property.
July 2013: After a protracted debate over the Dix property bill, lawmakers set the measure aside. The city and state sign a stand still agreement to put action by the city and the state on hold so that a new agreement can be reached. State and city leaders agree to conduct new appraisals for the property and conduct and environmental assessment.
April 2, 2014: The City of Raleigh makes a formal offer to buy the Dix property.
April 9, 2014: Gov. Pat McCrory rejects the city's offer to buy the property. Key sticking points in the deal include who will pay for the environmental cleanup of the site, the state's desire to retain a portion of the property, and the overall price of the property. Negotiations are ongoing.