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City officials questioning hospital's zoning decision

December 01, 2004|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

gregs@herald-mail.com

HAGERSTOWN - A change by hospital officials in their attempt to build a replacement for Washington County Hospital has raised more concerns about the project, two city officials said Tuesday.

The change involves the pursuit of zoning waivers, one of several regulatory measures needed before construction can begin at the proposed site.

The hospital's top official, Washington County Health System President and CEO James Hamill, said Tuesday the change does not signal a problem with the project, but rather was in reaction to a decision by the City Council.

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Hamill said the change will not affect a crucial decision by a state regulatory agency.

Hospital officials are in the process of pursuing a Maryland Health Care Commission review of a $233 million bid to move from East Antietam Street in downtown Hagerstown to a site near Robinwood Medical Center just beyond city limits. Without approval from the Health Care Commission, construction cannot move forward.

The shift on the zoning matter was detailed in two recent filings from hospital officials to the Health Care Commission.

In a filing dated Oct. 12, hospital officials said that if Hagerstown officials rejected plans to annex the proposed hospital site, they would file a zoning case through the county's zoning appeals board.

On Nov. 9, the city rejected a proposal from hospital officials and representatives of a housing development that would have resulted in the annexation of land for the hospital and the proposed 1,400-unit housing development.

In its most recent filing with the Health Care Commission dated Nov. 10, hospital officials said they would wait to pursue zoning waivers until after the hospital receives approval on its project plans from the state commission.

The hospital will need a special exception and variances to the existing zoning.

Hamill said he had hoped to apply for the zoning waivers once an agreement over costs for water, sewer and roads was worked out between hospital and city officials.

"You have to have an agreement on water or sewer" before applying for the zoning waivers, Hamill said.

Hospital officials, however, were forced by the city's November decision into the position of holding off on the zoning issue until after the Health Care Commission's process, Hamill said.

"Having been rebuffed there, we're just moving forward with the areas we can affect," Hamill said.

Hamill said that although the Health Care Commission has been asking questions about zoning status, he does not think the questions will affect the overall approval of the project because the review process guidelines do not take zoning into consideration.

Hagerstown Mayor William M. Breichner said it is not true that hospital officials were bound by the city's decision on the proposed agreement.

Breichner and City Council members have said hospital officials must seek zoning through the county before any water, sewer or road agreements are reached. Their reasoning is that residents who live near the proposed site are outside city limits, in the county, and therefore the decision should be made by the county.

"We're not standing in the way of their getting zoning," Breichner said.

Hamill said that if the Health Care Commission grants approval of their plans, he hopes city officials will follow through on their position to support the hospital once the commission approves of the project.

That Sept. 2, 2003, statement reads, in part, "If State of Maryland authorities determine that the proposed Robinwood site is the most cost effective and accessible location, the Mayor and Council will view the move as a serious blow to the vitality of the City, but will not oppose the relocation."

Hamill said that the city would be opposing the hospital's relocation by not granting water and sewer access.

Breichner said the statement does not say the city will support the move, but rather "we won't do anything to stop it," and requiring hospital officials to seek zoning waivers before dealing with the city is not stopping the project.

Breichner said the shift on the zoning issue probably will mean a more intensive review of the hospital's plans submitted to the Health Care Commission. The city has said it will seek official designation to rebut claims made by the hospital to the commission.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said he believed the shift signals a delay on the part of the hospital.

"It's nobody's delay but the hospital's," Metzner said. "They have no credibility at all with anybody who truly knows the facts."

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