Start of new psychiatric hospital could be slowed

MONTPELIER - The state appears unlikely to meet its goal of starting construction on a psychiatric hospital in Berlin before the end of this month.

But acting Mental Health Commissioner Mary Moulton and local officials in Berlin, just south of Montpelier, say they think the $22.5 million project is still on track.

"I don't think anybody saw show-stoppers," Berlin Development Review Board chairman Robert Wernecke said Wednesday. Board members had questions including what sorts of trees and shrubbery would be planted on the facility's grounds and what materials would be used to build a retaining wall.

Wernecke said he expected the state would be able to provide satisfactory answers to the questions in time for his board's next meeting on Dec. 4. He said the five-member panel would then deliberate and likely issue its findings later in December.

That would delay what state officials earlier this year had said they hoped would be a November start of construction on what has been a fast-tracked project since the former Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury, about 10 miles northwest of Montpelier, was forced to close due to flooding from Tropical Storm Irene in late August 2011. Wernecke scoffed at the idea the state might have expected approval from his board in time to start construction this month.

"To think they're going to have a shovel in the ground the same week we have a hearing is ... optimistic," he said. "I think that would be a very, very high expectation. I'm sure they recognize that." Now the challenge will be the onset of winter weather, Moulton said. "We're hoping that it doesn't freeze over in the next couple of weeks," she said.

Wernecke said the project has drawn little opposition. Three parties asked to intervene in his board's review: Berlin, a town of about 3,000 residents; the Berlin Mall shopping center; and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont. The shopping center and Blue Cross Blue Shield are near the site of the planned psychiatric hospital, which is to be built along a road northwest of the Central Vermont Medical Center. Wernecke said the town has been pushing for a promise from the state that if the town sets up a municipal water system - something it's considering - the state hospital would be a customer.

Moulton said she will be talking with the town police department about any increased police coverage that might be required and how the state might support that.

The state has been under intense pressure since Irene to map the future course of its mental health system. Lawmakers last winter approved a plan to replace the 54-bed Waterbury hospital, which long had been viewed as antiquated and in need of major updating or replacement, with a 25-bed facility in Berlin and a series of smaller psychiatric units scattered around the state.


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