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David Lawrence Center, which has been providing mental health services to Collier County for about five decades, didn’t receive a positive recommendation from the Collier County Planning Commission last week for the location of its new behavioral health center. 

The proposed location for a 64,000-square-foot, 102-bed facility is on a county-owned 5.15-acre plot of land adjacent to David Lawrence Center on Golden Gate Parkway. The subdistrict that surrounds the center was approved for institutional uses such as care facilities, nursing homes and churches in 2007.  

Expanding mental health services has been a mission of Collier County since 2010, when the Criminal Justice Mental Health and Substance Abuse Planning Council was established through a grant received by the Florida Department of Children and Family Services. In 2019, county commissioners approved a five-year strategic plan to improve behavioral health service access. The top priority in the strategic plan was to build and operate a central receiving facility system to serve those who are experiencing an acute mental health or substance abuse crisis. 

Since 2008, Baker Acts in Collier County increased almost 250%. David Lawrence Center operates at full capacity almost daily at 45 beds. “Expanding and improving our operations, that’s something we have known for many years that was something that was going to have to be done soon for the care and treatment of our loved ones and folks that we know in our community,” said Collier County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Leslie Weidenhammer, who runs the agency’s mental health unit. 

In Feb. 2021, county commissioners unanimously selected the Golden Gate Parkway location near where David Lawrence Center has operated for 47 years. The center approached the planning commission in October with an official proposal on the design of the facility, which will be funded through a county surtax with a proposed expenditure of $25 million. 

“Continuity of care, having inpatient acute care support located close to the outpatient support that people need is really important in order for them to have an expeditious next step in their treatment,” David Lawrence Center CEO Scott Burgess said. “The goal is to have same-day appointments so when somebody leaves inpatient acute, they have outpatient support service that same day. Obviously having [the mental health center] right next to the parent campus allows for that.” 

Burgess said the current location of the center, being near an Interstate 75 interchange, makes it a convenient location for all of the county. 

“It’s a centralized location, not only centralized in the services that are provided that people need to have access to, but we’re centralized in the county,” he said. “We’re pretty much in the middle of the county and we’re very closely located to I-75, which is a major thoroughfare and helps out with access for our clients and their families. So it enhances that client care and engagement and it also is very helpful from a staff recruitment and retention standpoint.” 

According to Rich Yovanovich, who was presenting on behalf of the applicant, this isn’t the first petition the county has heard relating to expanding public health services. It has proven difficult to get approval of these buildings near residential communities. 

“The vast majority of these petitions, the responses back have been, ‘We love the mission, we hate the location,’” Yovanovich said. “It’s troubling to me personally to hear that and have to respond to that because I think we lose a little bit of our humanity when I hear that, and it bothers me. This facility has been in this neighborhood for 47 years, it has been a good neighbor, and it has been a vital community asset.” 

During public comment, residents who live in close proximity to David Lawrence Center were quick to demonstrate opinions suggesting approval of the mission of the new behavioral health facility, just not the location.  

Elizabeth Bloch resides directly across the street from the proposed building site. She reported more than three instances of recently discharged patients from David Lawrence Center trespassing on her property. 

“When I leave my house and take care of my horse in the evening, how do you think I feel knowing that people are getting treated at David Lawrence Center who have to be released by law when they no longer are a danger for others but they can walk right onto my property because addicts and mentally ill folks don’t respect the same boundaries that [residents] do for property and personal safety,” Bloch said. 

After hours of public comment from residents who are concerned about the new facility being a threat to their homes and families, Commissioner Robert Klucik questioned the center’s care for the mental health of those who live around the facility. He was also concerned residents didn’t seem informed the 5-acre facility was proposed for their neighborhood. 

“That might not be your fault, but certainly it’s your project and it’s your issue to deal with” he said. “I’m really concerned and disturbed at the level of frustration that the people here have, the residents have, your neighbors have.”  

Dale Mullen, president of Wounded Warriors of Collier County, is in favor of the new facility and thinks the county shouldn’t wait any longer to provide more mental health services. 

“There isn’t enough access for beds in this community to service our population,” Mullen said. “I understand all the complaints that were made here today, and I can appreciate, but I know that veterans are dying on our streets here in Collier County whether it’s from suicide or whether it’s from substance abuse, there is a need to do it now and not postpone it.” 

Andy Solis, who just finished his term as a Collier County commissioner, is known for having spent many years pushing to bring more mental health services to the county. He assures this location is the best-case scenario for David Lawrence Center and the county. 

“We looked at five sites, we looked at not only the appropriateness of the location, we looked at the cost of each of the locations. It was a very detailed analysis,” Solis said. “We had experts analyze and explain the different aspects of the site selection and this facility is on this land that has been designated for this purpose.” 

Although many of the residents’ main concern was David Lawrence Center’s patient discharge protocols, Burgess said not much more can be done. 

“Individuals have civil liberties and when they are discharged and not deemed under the Baker Act and fitting the Baker Act criteria, they have the legal right like every other resident in this entire county to do what they prefer to do,” Burgess said. “If they prefer to walk home, we must let them walk home.” 

The planning commission gave the staff at the David Lawrence Center a month to meet with neighbors to explore ways in making the surrounding residents more at ease with the idea of the new facility.  

At the second meeting, it was presented that the sheriff’s office agreed to enhance patrolling around the area and David Lawrence Center would schedule monthly meetings to promote regular open dialogue with the surrounding community. Additionally, a commitment was made to build a 10-foot wall along the north and eastern boundaries of the subdistrict with a 6-foot-high fence. 

However, these modifications along with further public comments and concerns did not sway the opinions of the planning commission in a way that Burgess and his team hoped. 

“I don’t feel comfortable saying yes to a project where there has to be a 10-foot wall between the project and its neighbors,” Commissioner Randy Sparrazza said. 

Commission Chair Edwin Fryer sees the essence of this disagreement as lack of compatibility and was impressed with the amount of effort shown by residents who proved their case. 

The planning commission voted unanimously to deny recommendation to the board of county commissioners. The county commission ultimately has the final vote on the project, with this item appearing on an upcoming agenda at an undetermined date.  

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