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Metzner to coalition: What should city do?

July 23, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

Hagerstown City Councilman Lew Metzner called this week to say he's puzzled by the actions of the Hagerstown-Washington County Community Healthcare Coalition.

"What do they want us to do?" Metzner asked.

The coalition, made up of citizens, local businesspeople and union officials, held a public meeting at noon on July 16 to rally support for the hospital's proposed moved to a site adjacent to Robinwood Medical Center.

When the hospital submitted its first application to the Maryland Health Care Commission, the city government hired a consultant and a lawyer and announced that it wanted to be treated as a "party of interest."

The city spent $300,000 contesting that application, which the hospital withdrew after the commission staff suggested that it might not be approved. The hospital is expected to submit a new application by next week.

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Metzner told me he would not support spending any more money to contest the application. If the city government does not comment on the hospital's latest submission, Metzner said the commission would interpret "silence as consent."

In other words, if the city takes no action, the commission will treat that as city approval, Metzner said. But since no application has yet been filed, there's nothing to comment on, he said.

I suggested that the hospital and the coalition would like the city government to write a letter of support for the project, as Washington County's general Assembly delegation did recently.

But given the divisions in the city administration on this issue, silence-as-consent may be the best the coalition can hope for.

One thing the hospital shouldn't look for, Metzner said, is getting city zoning as part of any agreement to annex the new hospital into the city.

Metzner took exception to one item in my Wednesday column, in which I noted that under Mayor Robert Bruchey II, the council had approved zoning and annexation for a development on Mount Aetna Road that neighbors objected to.

The council did approve that development, Metzner said, but only after developer Wes Churchey modified his plans to make it more acceptable to the neighbors.

The current council has taken the position that it won't "disenfranchise" neighbors of the new hospital site, some of whom remember hospital officials' 1991 promise that they would not put a critical-care facility - with helicopters and ambulances bringing patients there - in their neighborhood.

At one point, Metzner said, hospital officials seemed OK with obtaining zoning through the county process, but have recently objected, with CEO James Hamill saying it would be a duplication of effort.

Not so, Metzner said. Once the council determines that the zoning agreed upon by the county is appropriate, it can be incorporated into the annexation agreement.

(Metzner said that one possible reason for the Washington County Commissioners' silence on the issue is that they may have to vote on zoning somewhere down the road and don't want to be seen as prejudging the case.)

Neighbors I've talked to say they want a traffic plan for the Robinwood area approved before any construction starts. They fear government will allow gridlock, then declare an emergency and raise taxes to get the funds to fix it.

A prolonged fight with neighbors over zoning could push the start of construction back, bringing it perilously close to what hospital officials fear most - an increase in interest rates that would add many millions of dollars to the project's cost.

I e-mailed Metzner's questions and concerns to the coalitions chairs - James Latimer, Ed Lough and Charles Shindle - and we'll make space available for any reply to Metzner's concerns.

Latimer, Lough and Shindle are good folks who have served as volunteers for years in a variety of Washington County organizations, charitable and otherwise. Councilman Metzner seems ready to talk and if this trio can engage him, they may just be able to make progress in a way that others haven't been able to up until now.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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