Delco’s plan for a mental health center in Marple sparks community outrage

Nearly every seat in the Delaware County Council chambers was filled one evening earlier this month as several dozen residents signed up to address members.

The group has been gathering at council meetings for weeks since officials revealed they were considering building a mental health facility on county-owned property just off Interstate 476 along Sproul Road in Marple Township.

Community members were enraged that such a facility could be placed on land where the county planned to open a immense public park known as Delco Woods. Council members also heard from residents who believed, without evidence, that they were planning to house illegal immigrants on the property.

“There is no electorate in Marple that would support this,” one resident said.

Ultimately, last week, the county announced it would not move forward with construction on this location due to funding issues and would continue to look for other locations. But the entire saga has highlighted the challenges the county faces in expanding mental health treatment, with structural and social barriers exacerbating stigma around mental health challenges and political polarization.

The response comes as Delaware County, like communities across the country, faces a growing demand for mental health care.

“Everyone knows we need this service, but no one wants it in their community,” said Sandra Garrison, director of community services for Delaware County.

Delco Woods facility

Delaware County, where Democrats have led the county government since 2020, has been trying for years to build a recent, 16-bed long-term mental health facility. Officials began searching for a location in 2021, but a statement from the county said the need has become more urgent due to the closure of beds at Norristown State Hospital.

The county currently has a contract with Merakey County of Delaware for 16 beds in a similar facility. The services refused to provide the location.

But council members say they have repeatedly failed over the past three years as they evaluated 25 potential sites for a recent facility, facing zoning, cost and potential deals that fell through.

“It was always something,” said Councilmember Christine Reuther.

County officials quietly searched the sites, but the search gained public attention in April when Marple Township changed its zoning plan to prohibit anything other than open space on long-vacant property formerly owned by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The property, next to Cardinal O’Hara High School, was previously occupied The village of Don Guanella, a home for developmentally disabled men, is located mainly in the forests. Delaware County took over the land in 2021 after years of fighting over the property’s future.

The county has challenged Marple’s rezoning in court and revealed it is considering devoting part of the 213-acre parcel to a tiny mental health facility, using existing buildings on the plot.

Marple County Commissioner Joseph Rufo said many residents felt cheated 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 it would not proceed with construction of the mental health center, the statement said it would continue to pursue a lawsuit to preserve its rights to the land.

At the June 6 council meeting, council member Kevin Madden explained that Delco Woods was an option because it was zoned for institutional employ and was already county property. He insisted that most of the land would continue to be used as a park.

Public reaction

Those opposed to the Delco Woods location also cited concerns that the mental health facility would pose a safety risk, with some citing unsubstantiated claims that it would be used to house undocumented immigrants.

“Some of what we experienced is not about mental health, but about the 2024 election.” Reuther said. “What we are experiencing in mental health is a reflection of a fear that people have that is not reality. This is one of the challenges that comes from the fact that mental health and mental illness live in the shadows.”

Charlie Alexander, a Marple resident who publicly accused the county council of wanting to house illegal immigrants, said there was no evidence for the allegations. However, he stated that he believed he was in the right due to the conduct of council members, including claims that he was motivated by partisan political views.

“It’s literally another one of their deviations because they don’t have a leg to stand on when I say anything,” he said.

Aurelie Baradic, a Delaware County resident who opposed the Delco Woods proposal, stated that she is a Democrat but believes it is inappropriate for county officials to assume that anyone who opposes the facility is opposed to offering mental health treatment .

“There are going to be a lot of people really disappointed with this situation,” Baradic said.

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

“Such a facility would meet an urgent public health need,” she said.

Even after the Delco Woods site was declared unsuitable for a mental health facility, community members remained suspicious of their plans for the site.

As evidence, Alexander cited the county’s plan to continue fighting Marple’s zoning there are plans for space other than the mental health facility.

“It doesn’t really matter what I say or what any of us say, they see us with a ‘D’ over our heads and they don’t trust what we say,” Madden said of the continued lack of trust in the county council.

Finding a recent option

When the county announced that Delco Woods was no longer a potential site for the facility, officials did not cite community response.

Instead, they said the property was not profitable for a reason condition of the building and expected renovation costs.

Reuther said Fair Acres Geriatric Center, a county-owned nursing home in Middletown Township, was considered, but that location may also be too steep.

Council members said about four other options are being considered, but declined to reveal them.

“I think it’s in our best interest to have a communication plan once we find a location and make sure we’re communicating the facts,” said Council President Monica Taylor. She noted that the county’s existing facility did not cause much drama.

Council member Elaine Schaefer, who was the only person opposed to the employ of Delco Woods, said she felt opposition to the site it was unique and would not be repeated.

“There was only a slight reaction here because the building is that type of building. It was really more about an unexpected change in direction of what the future of this park was going to be,” she said.

But the other council members aren’t sure. Reuther pointed to community frustration with mental health and homeless housing throughout the Philadelphia region.

“People have decades of ideas about what mental health services are and who people experiencing mental health needs are,” Taylor said. “Many of these perceptions have no basis in reality.”

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