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Court decision paves way for hospital

November 30, 1999|By Andrew Schotz

WASHINGTON COUNTY

By ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

A new Washington County Hospital can be built near Robinwood Medical Center, under a Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruling filed Monday.

It remained unclear whether the five people who sued the county over the project would continue trying to halt construction by appealing to the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court.

In its opinion, the Court of Special Appeals ruled that a Washington County Circuit judge correctly upheld county zoning variances for the project.

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James Hamill, the president and CEO of Washington County Health System, the hospital's parent company, said he was "absolutely delighted" about the ruling by the Court of Special Appeals.

Hamill said the decision ends many months of waiting and will let the Health System move ahead with a new 500,000-square-foot hospital on Robinwood Drive.

Sally R. Hatch said she and the other four appellants made up their mind about the next step, but want their attorney, William C. Wantz, to speak on their behalf, so she had no comment.

Two messages were left at Wantz's office on Monday, but he didn't return the calls.

The appellants could petition the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, to hear the case, but the Court of Appeals could decline to hear the case.

The other appellants are Robert C. Hatch, Charles B. Hongell, Gordon A. Bartels and Janet E. Bartels.

Two messages were left Monday for Hongell and for Gordon and Janet Bartels, but they did not return calls.

Kirk Downey, an attorney representing Washington County, said the county hopes the latest ruling resolves the issue.

The court challenge has delayed the project for the private, nonprofit hospital for many months, adding to the costs, Hamill has said. He has urged the appellants to drop their case.

At the Health System's request, a state bill was proposed forcing anyone who challenges a zoning or land-use decision for a medical facility to secure a bond covering the estimated cost of delays. The bill died when support in Washington County's Delegation to the General Assembly splintered.

The last public cost estimate for the new hospital was $255 million.

Hamill said that was a year ago; the project will have to be rebid and a new cost analysis done. If the appellants stop now, construction could start in eight to 10 weeks, he said.

The Washington County Board of Zoning Appeals voted in December 2005 in favor of two zoning variances for the hospital project.

One variance waived setback requirements so a new hospital could connect to the existing Robinwood Medical Center.

The second variance allowed helicopters and ambulances at the new hospital as well as a building taller than the zoning ordinance permits.

In January 2006, a residents' group called Citizens for Responsible Health Care appealed in Washington County Circuit Court, seeking to overturn the variances.

Washington County Circuit Judge W. Kennedy Boone III affirmed the zoning board's decisions.

As the Circuit Court decision was pending, three members of the residents' group withdrew from the case, leaving five appellants.

The remaining appellants took the case to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which heard arguments in June.

Monday's opinion ? written by retired Court of Appeals Judge Lawrence F. Rodowsky, with no concurring or dissenting opinions ? is unreported.

A spokesman for the Maryland Judiciary, which oversees the court system, said reported opinions are seen as setting precedent, while unreported opinions are not.

The opinion addresses four issues the appellants raised in their challenge, such as whether a hospital is a legal use for the land and whether the zoning board should have modified previous zoning conditions.

In 1991, the county's zoning board approved a "medical campus" on Robinwood Drive, prohibiting emergency helicopters and ambulances.

The hospital had no plan to move its acute-care facility on East Antietam Street, the zoning board said at the time.

However, Health System officials later decided that a new hospital was needed and picked a spot next to Robinwood Medical Center over other choices.

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