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Five appellants not the only culprits

January 28, 2007|by BOB MAGINNIS

It certainly would be convenient if the five people now appealing the Washington County Hospital's move to Robinwood would drop their action.

The hospital might still be able to hang on to the guaranteed price it negotiated with a general contractor. If this appeal were settled now, hospital CEO James Hamill said recently, site work could begin almost immediately.

If the appeal proceeds and takes the 12 to 18 months predicted, there will be no guarantee that the price will stay the same, or that interest rates won't rise or that another hurricane season won't send the price of building materials soaring.

It is tempting to focus on these five residents, but the truth is, they are only in a position to do this because local leaders didn't act to move the project along when they could have.

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The most puzzling thing about the hospital project has been the fact that Hamill and company didn't ask for zoning for the Robinwood site back in 2003, following a preliminary consulation with county zoning officials. Hamill has said that the sticking point then was that the zoning wouldn't be approved without a sewer agreement with the city - an agreement the city did not seemed inclined to grant.

The sewer issue has since been worked out with a city-county flow-transfer agreement, but it's been almost five years since the project was first discussed. It didn't happen earlier, in my view, because local elected officials stood on the sidelines, hoping they wouldn't have to get involved.

The side-liners include the Washington County delegation to the Maryland General Assembly, which wrote a letter of support, but didn't do much when the Hagerstown City Council was fighting the effort.

The city government needs the delegation's help on a variety of issues, including improvements to the state roads that go through the city. But if the delegation ever took the council to the woodshed, so to speak, on the hospital issue, I couldn't see any evidence of it.

Back in 2004, Del. John Donoghue, D-Washington, whose district is essentially the City of Hagerstown, told me he didn't feel it was his role to be "heavy-handed and authoritarian" with the council on issues such as the city-county annexation dispute.

If you remember, both governments spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayers dollars to go to court. What they got for that effort was something like a split decision that gave neither side the total victory it was seeking. That lack of clear guidelines still adversely affects economic development projects in some parts of the county. If only someone had wielded a heavy hand.

And then there are the Washington County Commissioners, who said little or nothing while hospital officials and the mayor and council squared off. Yes, they helped with the flow-transfer agreement, but on the item that could have moved the whole deal forward, they didn't do much.

Which item? A zoning map text amendment. In 2005, several land-use professionals told me the county could help the hospital avoid the need for a special exception there by giving the health-care facility a zoning map text amendment.

Instead of the Board of Zoning Appeals hearing the case, the commissioners would hold a public hearing, then decide.

At the 2005 State of the County meeting, Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook told me afterward that because the commissioners might have to make that decision, they hadn't taken a position as a body on the hospital move, although he said he had written a letter of personal support.

That was three years into the planning for the project and the costs were steadily increasing, even though nothing was moving forward. It was like being stuck in a taxi in big-city traffic with the meter running.

Time has run out on that option for now. The required notice to citizens, the public hearing and the county board's subsequent deliberations couldn't all be accomplished before the hospital's guarantee with its contractor expires.

The saddest thing about this is that Washington County has gone through something similar previously and handled it much better, even though the stakes weren't nearly as high.

I'm talking about the mid-1990s battle over selection of a site for the local campus of the University System of Maryland. There were strong proponents for three different sites: Allegeheny Energy's Friednship Technology Park, acreage adjacent to Hagerstown Community College and the old Baldwin House in downtown Hagerstown.

Many predicted disaster if the downtown site were chosen, but after the decision was made, the factions united and lobbied together for start-up money.

Classes began in Janurary 2005 and last November, C. David Warner III, the executive director, said USM may now have to seek another building to handle the growth that is occuring.

The new Washington County Hospital might been a similar success story, but many who could have moved it forward didn't act. Blame the five appellants if you must, but remember that they only got this far because others didn't step up and craft a way around the obstacle that they've created.

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