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City takes hands-off approach to hospital

July 20, 2005|by GREGORY T. SIMMONS

HAGERSTOWN

gregs@herald-mail.com

The Hagerstown City Council officially decided Tuesday to distance itself from plans to move Washington County Hospital in hopes of putting two major decisions on the shoulders of officials working outside City Hall.

The council took up a discussion during its Tuesday work session over what the city's role should be in the hospital's move. City politicians have grappled with the proposed move for the better part of three years.

The central question the council took up Tuesday was how to get Washington County Hospital connected to the city's sewer system without treading on current city policy and laws, breaking a legally binding agreement with the Maryland Department of Environment or opening the city up to costly lawsuits.

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The City Council unanimously agreed that Washington County Hospital should get land-use approval through Washington County - not through the city as hospital officials have hoped.

The council also agreed that instead of dealing with hospital officials on how to get sewer capacity to the hospital, the question should be dealt with by the council, the Washington County Commissioners and the county's delegation to the General Assembly.

The city would wait to hear from the county and state representatives before taking further action.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner pushed for the stance, which others agreed to after some debate.

After the meeting, Metzner said the council's decision should now lift pressure off city officials, who have been blamed for slowing the move. The decision also clarifies the city's position.

"There's no longer a mixed message," Metzner said.

Washington County Health System President and CEO James Hamill said he would not comment on the city's action until receiving written documentation, health system spokeswoman Maureen Theriault said Tuesday night after speaking with Hamill.

Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington, said Tuesday night that he's willing to help out if needed.

"I am very happy to facilitate a discussion with MDE (Maryland Department of the Environment), however ... I'm not convinced that it's necessary from what MDE has told me," Shank said.

Shank said he understands that the city could change one of its laws to allow the hospital to transfer its rights to the sewer system from its current site to the new site. Metzner also proposed that idea Tuesday, however, it did not gain support from the council.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook did not return phone calls seeking comment Tuesday night.

Washington County Hospital officials announced in November 2002 they had chosen a site near Robinwood Medical Center off Robinwood Drive for the new hospital.

Hospital officials later submitted plans for review by the Maryland Health Care Commission, which had to approve the plans before the hospital could be built.

The process bogged down, however, amidst a $300,000 effort funded by the city to dispute the hospital's plans and questions from state officials over the financing plan to build the new hospital.

In May 2004, hospital officials withdrew the first set of plans before the Health Care Commission took a vote on approval, avoiding what could have been a costly delay if the commission denied approval.

With a revised financing plan, the hospital resubmitted its proposal in September. The city spent another $5,000 on consulting fees in a final effort to refute some hospital claims, but held off on further disputes for the second round of consideration.

In June, the Health Care Commission approved the site plans.

Debate over land use


The land-use question has been at the heart of ongoing debate over the hospital's move. The land where the hospital would be built is outside city limits, but could be annexed into the city under current city policy.

One problem is a 1991 agreement made with Washington County to allow the building of Robinwood Medical Center, which included provisions to prevent a helicopter pad or hospital from being built there.

Nearby neighbors have voiced their displeasure at the possibility of the hospital being built next to the medical center.

The land-use regulations for the site where the hospital would be built also require a special exception and variances from the zoning rules.

Hamill has described the process as simple, but city officials have questioned why hospital administrators have waited to apply for the zoning exceptions. Hamill has said the sewer question must be solved before the zoning process.

The sewer capacity problem has its roots in a number of failures at the city's sewage treatment plant, which resulted in action by the MDE.

In January, the city signed a document at the direction of MDE to limit the amount of buildings that can connect to the city's sewage system for the coming years.

Earlier this month, under the direction of Mayor Richard F. Trump, the city forwarded a letter to ask for an exemption to the MDE restrictions in an effort to allow the hospital's move.

The letter drew fire from council members, who did not see the letter until five days after it was sent. The council on Tuesday did not discuss how their discussions would affect the request.

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