The proposed site for a 21-bed "step-down" psychiatric facility on the campus of the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center, off State Hospital Drive in Bangor. Credit: Callie Ferguson

The Bangor Planning Board approved plans Wednesday for a previously contested 21-bed secure “step-down” psychiatric facility, which will be built on the existing campus of the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center.

The unanimous vote authorized designs for a one-story, 9,500-square-foot building on a 2.3 acre state-owned parcel in the center of the campus on State Hospital Drive. The facility, backed by Gov. Paul LePage, is intended to ease strain on the troubled Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, which lost federal accreditation in 2013 for reasons related to staffing, practices and inmate overcrowding.

The plan OK’d Wednesday differs from what LePage originally had in mind when he pitched the project in Bangor last spring.

Back then, LePage eyed an 8,300-square-foot facility to go up on a 6-acre, state-owned parcel across the street from Dorothea Dix on Hogan Road. He chose that spot after his attempt to build the center in Augusta was blocked by the Legislature.

But longtime residents near Hogan Road resisted that plan — not because they opposed such a facility in Bangor but because the state failed to answers key questions about its operations, such who would oversee and pay for it.

As a result of their outcry at a September public meeting, the Bangor City Council placed a six-month moratorium on the construction of psychiatric facilities while city officials worked on a solution to address the neighborhood’s concerns.

That came in December, when councilors approved an amendment to the city’s zoning code that limits the construction of secure psychiatric facilities to the Dorothea Dix campus. City officials called it a sensible fix that addressed the public’s worries and allowed the state’s plans to move forward.

On Wednesday, the project sailed to approval without any comment from the public. A site plan was submitted May 30.

“It’s fairly small,” David Gould, Bangor’s planning officer, said.

The nondescript building will sit about 22 feet tall at the center of the campus, couched between similarly sized government buildings, and won’t likely be visible to drivers passing by on the campus’ adjacent main roads, Hogan Road and State Street.

The state has tapped local contractor Tom Ellis to build it. Construction is set to begin this summer and will take about 12 to 18 months, an engineer with the firm WBRC said Wednesday. It will cost around $3 million, according to past estimates. Once operational, more than 40 employees — from social workers to security officers to cooks — will staff the secured hospital.

Questions about who will run the facility are still unanswered, but those unknowns don’t seem to matter as much as they did last year, now that the location has moved. A representative from the state did not respond to the BDN’s calls for comment Thursday.

“I think we do have concerns about those things, but legally, what the city’s role [is] in this is specifically related to the site plan and land use ordinances,” Ben Sprague, chair of the city council, said. “The concerns about how it’s going to be paid for, overseen, etc., are legislative issues and need to be sorted out there.”

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.