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A bill with no appeal

March 22, 2007

A Maryland Attorney General's ruling made public this week indicates that might be unconstitutional to use a proposed bill to stop the pending appeal of a zoning variance for the proposed new Washington County Hospital.

We agree. Forcing ordinary citizens to post bonds to challenge zoning decisions would bar anyone without considerable means from participating in the process.

The fact that the bill is being introduced so late in the session is also an indication that it wasn't well-thought-out and might die in committee.

Requested by the Washington County Health System, the bill is aimed at making it easier to locate a new hospital next to the Robinwood Medical Center.

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It would require those challenging medical-facility zoning or land-use decisions in court to post a bond, which could be as a minimum of $100,000, if someone appealed a local circuit court decision.

Del. John Donoghue, who filed the bill, agreed that it could not be applied retroactively to litigation that has already been filed. He said he would not speculate as to how it might be used in the future.

Let us do that. It might be used to make it more difficult to appeal a zoning text amendment, which would essentially change the zoning ordinance to make a new hospital a permitted use at the Robinwood site.

This strategy, now under consideration by the Washington County Commissioners, would make the matter of a variance moot.

But, like the bond bill, this ploy might be coming too late to avoid a lengthy delay in new hospital construction. The idea has been talked about since 2005, but the last Board of County Commissioners took no action.

What has delayed this process, as much as anything the appellants have done, is the reluctance of elected officials to act when they should have - to intervene in the City of Hagerstown's dispute with the hospital, for example.

Now - again - officials are arriving late at the table with a strategy that might only provoke an appeal on constitutional grounds.

The Herald-Mail supports construction of a new hospital at the Robinwood location. The proximity of an acute-care hospital to many doctors' offices would allow more of them to remain "on call" for emergencies and trauma care while still seeing their private patients.

The best strategy for ending this impasse now is not another attempt to shame or bully the appellants into giving up.

Instead, someone needs to try to persuade them that the quality of this community's medical care depends on getting this facility built before another five years have passed.

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