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Hospital bond bill might be doomed

March 28, 2007|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

ANNAPOLIS - Fractured support from local legislators appears to have killed a bill aimed at a challenge to approvals for a new Washington County Hospital.

County delegation backing withered, some lawmakers said, when Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, took control of the bill.

Donoghue, however, said Friday's bill hearing before the House Environmental Matters Committee went well and he's still pushing for the bill's passage.

The bill calls for anyone challenging a Washington County zoning or land-use decision on a medical facility to secure a bond covering the estimated cost of delays traced to the appeal.

The bill, as written, wouldn't apply to the case that five residents have before the Maryland Court of Appeals, protesting county zoning variances for the project. But it might be used for a different challenge of the same project, such as a zoning ordinance amendment that Washington County Health System has requested.

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The Health System, the hospital's parent company, has pressured the residents to drop their appeal because the delay will increase costs. James Hamill, the Health System's president and CEO, has estimated that the project last estimated at $255 million could rise another $150 million because of court delays.

The Health System requested the bill, Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr., R-Washington/Allegany, has said.

Despite Donoghue's optimism, the bill appears dead in committee without support of a majority of the delegation.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore City, the committee's chairwoman, said "local courtesy" matters, referring to other lawmakers deferring, on local bills, to local representatives' wishes.

She said she asked Donoghue on Friday for a letter from the delegation.

"I would think that we would have to have some form of letter of support" or the bill won't proceed, she said during an interview Tuesday.

Myers, the delegation chairman, said Tuesday there won't be a letter.

After Friday's hearing, he polled the delegation. His count was 5 to 1 against a letter of support, with two opinions unknown.

At least five votes in favor are needed for the eight-member delegation to take a position.

The opponents were Del. Christopher B. Shank, Del. Robert A. McKee, Del. Richard B. Weldon Jr., Sen. George C. Edwards and Myers.

Myers couldn't reach Sen. Alex X. Mooney or Sen. Donald F. Munson.

In an interview last week, Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington, had no position on the bill, but said it should be the delegation's.

Munson, R-Washington, said Tuesday he'd sign the letter, but only because he's so focused on getting a new hospital. "Something's gotta be done," he said.

Delegation sponsorship, though, "would have helped the power behind the bill - in both houses," Munson said.

A delegation meeting this month to consider sponsoring the bill was canceled when Donoghue took custody of the bill.

Donoghue has said he'd use connections in the Democratically controlled General Assembly to move the bill along, noting that Washington County Hospital is currently in his district.

On Tuesday, he repeated his frustration that five residents are holding up a vital community project.

One appellant, Charles Hongell, has urged Donoghue to withdraw the bill. Hongell wrote in an e-mail that siting a new hospital on Robinwood Drive contradicts a promise that a division of the Health System made 16 years ago.

Edwards said he supports the project, but there should be another way to move the process along besides requiring a security bond, which could be a financial hardship.

McKee said he opposes state intervention, through legislation, in a local zoning process.

Shank said bills on local issues should go through a delegation hearing process.

The Hagerstown City Council unanimously opposed the bill.

On the Web at http://mlis.state.md.us/2007rs/billfile/hb1436.htm

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