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Why must every project in Washington County turn into a mess?

March 11, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

Somewhere in Washington County, you wish there were a leader, public or private, strong enough to get all parties with interests in the proposed hospital together in the same room and either solve the problems through negotiation, or else knock some heads until they're dragged kicking and screaming to their senses.

These wars of stonewalling, wars of misinformation, wars of lawsuits, wars of numbers, wars of advertisements and, most recently, wars of legislation have become the most patently ridiculous thing I can recall in 25 years of watching local government.

No one has behaved admirably in this entire affair. No one. From Day 1, it's been a battle among children, a squabble over sandbox toys and tattling to the teacher.

The hospital failed to pick the best site, played footsie with zoning, has been borderline mean and arrogant in dealing with opposition, and has no qualms about blaming everyone else for its failures.

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Instead of working with the hospital, the City of Hagerstown helped create an atmosphere of confrontation, introduced a laundry list of ridiculous demands and basically opposed a necessary project, while pretending support.

The county remained aloof over what is clearly a project that affects the entire county, preferring to watch the train wreck from a distance and, only later, maintaining it was firmly in the hospital camp because it had sent "a letter" to the state.

And finally, some opponents in the public - fueled to some degree, no doubt, by the hospital's ham-handedness - have returned the hospital's fire in-kind, concocting windmills and going to court because, among other things, the occasional Medevac will distract school students.

Now comes the Washington County delegation in Annapolis, rattling sabers and threatening to file legislation that would hold lawsuit-filing citizens liable for costs associated with construction delays caused by the appeal process.

This is mindful of the '70s arms race, when nations' answer to nuclear proliferation was to build more warheads.

One smells more strong-arm tactics on the part of the hospital, which continues to launch roundhouse punches at the tar baby only to find itself stuck deeper in the goo.

Still, you can understand the hospital's frustration. While there are certainly more than five people who oppose the project - contrary to the hospital's implications - it does appear that the opponents are in an ever-dwindling minority.

My sense is that the great majority believe the site may not be ideal, but that we're in desperate need of a new facility and that it's time to move on and make the best of the situation.

So who is right? No one is right.

The opponents went to court and lost. They would have been wise to leave it there, rather than drag it out through a never-ending appeals process.

But like it or not, the appeals process is the system we have, and threatening to break these people financially is unseemly at best and at worst it's a cynical undermining of the American judicial system.

I don't disagree with what the delegation has to say. Del. LeRoy Myers is correct; the suit does end up costing a lot more money in construction costs. And Del. Chris Shank is correct when he says, "there comes a time in our community when enough's enough."

Enough was enough about two years ago.

But again, this is a two- way street. What if a court were to conclude that the hospital's failure to listen to its own site-selection committee, its failure for timely zoning requests and its propensity for making enemies at every turn was ultimately responsible for the lawsuit and hence the delay?

Would the hospital then be comfortable with paying for the delay itself out of its for-profit arm while holding its paying customers blameless?

What if a court decided that it was the city that poisoned the waters from the start. Should it pay?

Shank may be right, the suit may be frivolous. But that's always been for a judge to decide, not a state delegate.

In plain talk, a new hospital - wherever it is built - is all but essential to the community. Technology has passed the old hospital by. Professional skill being equal, a patient will receive better, perhaps far better, care at a modern facility than in downtown Hagerstown.

And that's what governments, opponents and supporters should keep in mind. In the end, this debate should not be about cost overruns, traffic or helicopters. Those are problems that can be worked out. The debate should be about the health of the community.

Those who file the lawsuits might think of this in terms of public health rather than public inconvenience. The hospital might remember that this ongoing antagonistic approach is delaying the project more than it's speeding it up.

I disagreed with the site, but that decision is behind us. There were winners and losers, but so what? My ego can handle defeat on that point.

There are fine people who oppose the project and fine people who support it. It was an honest debate.

So why can't we now - why can't we ever - forget what's past and join forces to make the best improvement to Washington County that we can make?

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