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Hospital sings that zoning rap again

November 21, 2004|by BOB MAGINNIS

When my sons were younger and both at home, occasionally they'd come into the living room when I was sitting on the sofa reading and ask if they could turn on the TV.

Yes, I'd say, as long as it's not MTV and that awful rap music.

But five minutes later, it would be on, thumping a hole in my brain.

Right about now, the Hagerstown City Council probably feels like a put-upon papa, too, after its latest spat with Washington County Hospital officials.

When dealing with the issue of whether the hospital should move to a site next to the Robinwood Medical Center, neither side has been wholly consistent, except on one point.

The council has said - repeatedly - that before it would agree to annex the new hospital site into the city, hospital officials would have to go through a hearing with Washington County's zoning appeals board.

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Why? Because back in 1991, when the Robinwood Medical Center was sited there, the hospital officials in place then promised residents there would never be an acute-care hospital built there, bringing ambulances, helicopters and all of the noise they make through the area's quiet streets.

Some residents remember those promises and even though they're not city residents, the council doesn't want to deny them their right to speak.

(Even if the site is annexed, City Attorney John Urner has said that the city's zoning appeals board would have to hear the case. But Urner also said it might be more diffcult for nonresidents to establish standing to object.)

Despite all that, hospital officials recently sent a letter asking the city to annex the site and rezone it. The only new wrinkle is that the hospital would seek "affirmative consent" to the city's zoning by the Washington County Commissioners.

Hospital CEO James Hamill said earlier that the hospital hadn't applied for county zoning because officials didn't want to have to go through the process twice, once with the county and again with the city.

City council members then said they would accept the county's decision and county officials recently confirmed that the hospital's attorneys had asked about dates for filing applications. Now the hospital is asking the city to do what the council has said all along that it wouldn't do.

Even if the city agreed, the commissioners wouldn't. They haven't really taken what anyone could call a leadership role on this issue so far. Volunteering to do this would be like volunteering for a root canal.

The council rejected the entire idea almost two weeks ago. It took me so long to write about it because it took me that long to figure out what was going on.

The first puzzle was why the hospital would hitch its proposal to another annexation requestion by the would-be developer of Mount Aetna Farms

This is the project that has gone (in concept) from 800 to 1,400 units and which the chief operating officer of the Washington County school system has asked the city to block on the grounds that it would generate 900 students and overwhelm local schools.

According to Al Martin, the city's finance director and one of the three city staffers who's been negotiating with the hospital, the hospital and the developer decided to partner and share the cost of utility installations and erection of a large water tank, which city officials have told me will cost millions.

Martin said that accepting the deal would have locked the city into approving 1,400 units, which some members of the council feel is way too many, given the area's already crowded roads.

Much has been made of the fact that the developer/hospital alliance would make $26 million in "contributions" to the city, the county and Washington County School Board. That's a little bit like me calling the taxes I pay a "contribution" to the government.

When I think of contributions, I think of something that's freely given, not a fee required for, let's say, the extension of a sewer line.

The hospital characterized the package as its "best and final" offer. Martin told me he hopes that's not the case. So do I. Here's my prescription for getting this thing untracked.

· Decouple the development from the hospital's application for annexation. It makes it overly complicated for the council to consider.

If the hospital and the developer wants to share costs, they can agree on that privately. Mount Aetna Farms will require heavy review and lots of negotiation with the city before any annexation agreement is approved. Should the approval of a new hospital hinge on whether or not this developer gets what he wants?

· Apply for county zoning. The council's not going to yield on this, so go ahead and get it over with.

· Resume negotiations and continue until the city team and the hospital team come up with something they can submit jointly.

There's a solution here, although I'm not sure all the city's elected officials really want one. But as long as hospital officials keep asking council members to do the one thing that they've said repeatedly that they won't, no progress is possible.

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