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Why the hospital appeal still goes on

November 18, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

To hear Washington County Hospital officials tell it, the ongoing court case over zoning for a new hospital site has resulted in $3 million in repairs to the old facility that otherwise wouldn't have been necessary, made it difficult to recruit new doctors to the area and tougher to treat an increasing number of emergency-room patients.

So, after almost two years in one venue or another, why is the case still going on?

The five appellants and their attorney, William Wantz, haven't given up, because, Wantz said, the law is on their side.

On Oct. 15, Wantz filed for a second reconsideration of a Maryland Court of Special Appeals decision that would allow construction of a new hospital near the Robinwood Medical Center.

Two weeks ago, I talked to Wantz about the case and why he and his clients are still pursuing it.

"My concern is that I would hate to see a matter of community importance decided based on a mistake," Wantz said.

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In his first request for reconsideration, Wantz said the court was in error when it said there was "no text component" of the county's comprehensive plan. In fact, he said, there were three citations of the comprehensive plan in his filing.

Wantz said the decision was reissued, with the reference to "text component" removed.

Wantz said he then sought a second reconsideration, in part because he reasoned that once the judges had acknowledged that there were references to the comprehensive plan cited, they were obligated to consider what the plan said about hospitals.

"Under Maryland law, a special exception cannot be granted unless (zoning) board makes a finding that the uses proposed conform to the plan," he said.

In such a case, Wantz said, the comprehensive plan becomes a true regulatory device, as opposed to a guide.

The court's decision said that in 1991, when the conditions were imposed, there was no application for a hospital at the Robinwood site, therefore the conditions imposed - no ambulance traffic, no helicopters - did not apply.

But Wantz said the 1991 application that eventually allowed construction of the medical center also sought permission for a hospital. The property owner at the time, Diane Paddack, understood that a hospital was planned and had a letter to that effect, Wantz said.

"Now that they've determined that a text (of the comprehensive plan) did exist, they should go back and consider what it says," Wantz said.

Wantz said the court should be bound by the precedent set in the case of Skipjack Cove Marina, Inc. v. County Commissioners. 252 Md. 440, 250 A.2d 260 (1969).

In that case, a marina in Cecil County was being operated under a special exception with conditions obtained and agreed to by the owner.

Then the marina was sold and the new owner claimed that the special exception had never been necessary. But the court ruled that the new owner had bought the property and in effect, had "purchased" the conditions, too.

"Unless the reasons for the conditions are no longer viable, they should remain," Wantz said.

"Why did the (zoning) board put conditions on the exception? To protect the residential uses from the noise of helicopters and ambulances," Want said.

"If that was the reason conditions were imposed, what has changed?" Want said.

"If you look at the whole Robinwood area, it has developed residentially as originally envisioned. Now there are more children to be put to bed whose parents don't want them disturbed by an ambulance and more ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) students at Eastern Elementary who don't need to be distracted by the noise of a helicopter," Wantz said.

A hospital at Robinwood wouldn't benefit the nearby residents, nor would it help county residents, who would have to pay for improvement of what Wantz said he's been told are the most congested intersections in the county.

Wantz said he felt that a better possibility would be to return to former mayor William Breichner's plan to take a downtown city block, buy the properties - through eminent domain, if necessary - and then build there.

"I thought Gov. (Parris) Glendening's decisions to keep the District Court downtown and put the USM (University System of Maryland) campus downtown were the right things to do," Wantz said.

"I'm disappointed Mayor Breichner's plan wasn't given more consideration," Wantz said.

Asked what it would cost to take the appeal to the next level - the full Maryland Court of Appeals - Wantz said, "No comment."

Asked what the court's deadline is for responding to his latest request for reconsideration, Wantz said there is no deadline.

During the interview, Wantz brought up the same question I did two years ago: Why didn't the health system get the zoning matter settled before it invested so much time and money in the Robinwood site?

Hospital officials cited a number of reasons, but though I doubt anyone in their camp will say so publicly, I'll bet they wish they had done so. They could have been rebuffed, but then, that's still a possibility.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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