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Annexation too important to be employed as a pawn

November 15, 2004|by TIM ROWLAND

Merry Christmas, Washington County Commissioners. Hope you like your gift. And who wouldn't just love to unwrap their present on Christmas morning and discover that it's a shiny, brand new - hospital.

This week, the City of Hagerstown flatly denied Washington County Hospital's proposal to rezone and annex land near the Robinwood Medical Center for a new, state-of-the-art project that carries with it a $233 million price tag.

In so doing, the council is also turning its back on the grand-scale, Mount Aetna Farms subdivision, which the hospital supporters claimed would be a cash cow for the city treasury - and was part of the proposed annexation package.

Through this whole ugly battle between the city and the hospital, the County Commissioners have remained prudently silent, probably secretly wishing for any resolution that didn't involve them. Now it looks as if the county may be forced into the fray as well.

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The hospital believed it was being generous in offering the city $10 million for road improvements, especially considering that the hospital did not create the traffic crisis that currently exists. The city believed it to be a wash - enough of a patch to handle the hospital, perhaps, but not enough to solve the root problem, part of which stems from the hospital's sister project, the Robinwood Medical Center.

As a supporter of the hospital's move, I still have no problem with the city fighting the good fight to keep the hospital downtown. Smarter people than me believe there was a real opportunity for the hospital to have completed, along with the university campus, a spectacular one-two punch for downtown viability.

But I'm not sure I get this latest vote, which to me smacks more of "and the horse you rode in on" than it does sound policy. I understand that the hospital appeared to be arrogant by failing to settle the zoning issue before it moved ahead with its project. And I understand that the annexation may not be, at least near-term, the moneymaker the hospital is making it out to be.

But why would the city risk throwing the annexation out with the zoning water? It wasn't so very long ago that the city was vigorously complaining about being nearly "landlocked" with few opportunities for growth or expansion. The major area that was identified for growth was to the east - Robinwood.

Now here comes Robinwood and its two major developments on a silver platter, and the city is hedging, citing the hospital's "bad faith."

For the city, the hospital's late-in-coming zoning request smacks of the bullying and sleight-of-hand it says has tainted the entire process. The hospital was so cocksure of itself that it figured it didn't need the city's "permission" - that it could bully through the annexation at its own convenience.

Perhaps. But I also think it's possible the hospital thought it was giving the community a magnificent new jewel of a medical facility, and that it never in a million years dreamed there would be anything resembling the bitter fight that has ensued. Now we can look back and say it was clearly a mistake for the hospital to take the community's support for granted. But it can also be argued it was an understandable mistake.

It may also be a mistake to believe the hospital train has left the station and that construction at Robinwood is inevitable. But I doubt it. I think the hospital will be built, and the bigger mistake would be for the city to burn the last bridge out of, or in this case into, town.

Is it wise to play games with, or use as a pawn, annexation that is crucial to the city's future? What if it all falls through? And don't think that it couldn't, because some among the mayor and council are demonstrating what I would call a measure of bad faith of their own - namely, this business of saying they're not against the things they're voting against.

They say they are not against a new hospital. But after about the 15th anti-hospital vote, I for one am ready to categorically pronounce them as being against a new hospital.

Likewise, we received a note from one councilman after the anti-annexation vote, upset that the paper made it look as if the city were against annexation which, the councilman said, it is actually for. You know something? Too bad. Votes mean something, words mean nothing, and voting against this annexation at any time for any reason is a terrible blunder.

The gravity of this decision cannot be overstated, because the city could conceivably go from nearly landlocked to almost totally landlocked, not on the basis of sound policy, but on the basis of a personality conflict. Once you slam the annexation door, that's it. Subdivisions only vote to annex into the city when they are not yet populated by voters.

As one community leader noted this week, the city has a number of silver linings: East-End development, huge amounts of private-developer cash pouring into downtown, a somewhat astonishing number of outside-the-area interests suddenly singing the praises of the city's potential.

Hagerstown may be about to have its day in the sun. It would be a pity if that day were clouded by a thoughtless, heat-of-the-moment decision that will have tremendous repercussions for decades to come.

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