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Hospital requests approved

December 08, 2005|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY

andrews@herald-mail.com

Two zoning variances were approved Wednesday, advancing Washington County Health System's effort to build a new hospital on Robinwood Drive.

The first request was to waive setback requirements, allowing a new Washington County Hospital to be connected to the existing Robinwood Medical Center.

The second request was to permit a hospital with a helicopter pad and ambulances, and allow a building taller than the zoning ordinance allows.

The Washington County Board of Zoning Appeals voted 4-1 to approve each request.

"This is an important issue for our community," Chairman Clint Wiley said during zoning board members' opening statements. "Our decision tonight may well determine if a new hospital facility is built at this time in Washington County."

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Foreseeing a disruption to the neighborhood, board member Jan Wetterer voted no to both variance requests. "I think it would be really a disaster to allow the hospital to be built there," she said.

After hearing testimony from proponents and opponents on Nov. 21 and 22, the zoning board put off a vote until Wednesday.

Four of the five board members read from statements as they indicated their leanings. They debated the issues for about 30 minutes, then voted.

Wiley said afterward that the board expects to issue a written opinion within two weeks. By law, the board has 30 days from the conclusion of the hearing, which would make the deadline Dec. 22.

Washington County Health System and county officials are working on a "fast track" review of the project, James Hamill, the Health System's president and chief executive officer, said after the meeting.

The Health System also is working with the county on sewer capacity for the proposed new hospital, he said.

The hospital plan passed another test in June, when the Maryland Health Care Commission approved a certificate of need.

The new hospital is expected to cost $230 million and be 500,000 square feet.

It would be five stories and 80 feet high. The county's ordinance allows the building to be no more than 35 feet high, part of why a variance is needed.

In 1991, when the county granted a special exception allowing Robinwood Medical Center, there was no indication a hospital would follow, Wetterer said.

"They didn't tell the people who bought houses there," she said.

Board member Bert Iseminger Jr. disagreed, saying rapid development in that area was made clear. "It was all in the comprehensive plan from the beginning," he said.

Iseminger said he expects the local roads system to be sufficient.

Wetterer also said ambulance and helicopter noise would be a nuisance.

The current hospital building on East Antietam Street is in a neighborhood and no one complained to the board about noise, Wiley said.

Iseminger called the impact of emergency vehicles "moderate at best."

"I understand that somebody needs help," he said. "I never think of that as noise."

"But you don't live there," Wetterer said.

Board member Spence Perry said he was convinced that helicopter traffic wouldn't be intrusive, particularly since Hamill testified that he has never heard a complaint about helicopters at the current site.

Hamill said after the meeting that Maryland State Police have promised to retrofit their helicopters to make them more powerful, yet quieter.

Wiley said he was satisfied by information he heard about growth, traffic, property values, noise and other concerns. "This is the place for a hospital," he said.

Board member David Williams said the hospital proposal, "in kind of a perverse way," will put a focus on the nearby roads and make them better.

Williams also spoke critically of what he called a "lack of candor" about the project by both sides, without being specific.

Reading from his prepared statement, Williams said, "Much of the testimony, while being presented in a well-meaning manner, has been less than complete. Whether this incompleteness has been due to duplicitousness or poor research methods, I cannot say, but it has been disconcerting."

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