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Hospital challengers still weighing their options

August 22, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - One day after a state appellate court affirmed zoning approvals for a new hospital, one of the challengers said his group hasn't figured out its next move.

In a decision filed Monday, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled that a circuit judge correctly upheld variances granted by Washington County's zoning board.

Charles B. Hongell, one of five residents suing to overturn the variances, said Tuesday that his group and its attorney will read the opinion before deciding whether to petition the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals.

The group's attorney, William C. Wantz, said early Tuesday afternoon that he had just received a copy of the written decision.

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The group has until early October to act.

After the Court of Special Appeals files an opinion, parties in the case have 45 calendar days to petition the Court of Appeals, Maryland Judiciary spokesman Darrell Pressley said.

The deadline in this case is Oct. 4, Pressley said.

Representatives of the private, nonprofit Washington County Hospital say the aging East Antietam Street hospital must be replaced. A 500,000-square-foot hospital is proposed for Robinwood Drive.

On June 16, 2005, the Maryland Health Care Commission approved a certificate of need for a new hospital. The certificate is good for 36 months, but the hospital can get a six-month extension, said Pam Barclay, the director of the commission's Center for Hospital Services.

She said the hospital must obligate, or commit to spending, at least 51 percent of the approved capital expenditures by the deadline.

Monday's decision capped 19 months of judicial review in Washington County Circuit Court and by the Court of Special Appeals.

The Washington County Board of Zoning Appeals voted in December 2005 to grant two zoning variances for setbacks, building height, and helicopters and ambulances.

Residents objected on several counts. They alleged that hospital traffic would hurt the neighborhood and that a 1991 approval for a Robinwood Drive "medical campus" ruled out a hospital there.

A residents' group appealed to Washington County Circuit Court the following month.

After a circuit judge upheld the variances, the residents took the case to the Court of Special Appeals.

Asked if the new decision surprised him, Hongell said, "Disappointed? Yes. Surprised? After recent events, no."

James Hamill, president and CEO of Washington County Health System, the hospital's parent company, said Monday he hopes the legal challenge is over.

Hamill said the project needs to be bid again and another cost analysis must be done. He predicted that construction could start in eight to 10 weeks, unless the residents appeal the case further.

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