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Ruling ends court battle over new Washington County Hospital

December 06, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Nearly two years of legal challenges against a new Washington County Hospital ended last week when a state court rejected a residents group's final appeal.

Although the Maryland Court of Special Appeals ruled in August against a group of residents - Robert C. Hatch, Sally R. Hatch, Charles B. Hongell, Gordon A. Bartels and Janet E. Bartels - they twice asked the court to consider the case again.

On Nov. 28, the court said no to the second request, effectively ending the case.

The residents didn't file a petition asking the Maryland Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, to review the case, said Darrell Pressley, a spokesman for the state's court system.

The deadline for the petition was Oct. 22, Pressley said.

Sally Hatch said Wednesday the appellants fought for what they thought was right, yet she was relieved.

"It has been a very stressful process, and it probably has not helped our health," she said.

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With the legal challenges done, a new hospital finally can be built on Robinwood Drive, after years of planning and pursuit, said James Hamill, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Washington County Health System, the hospital's parent company.

"We're very pleased to have the decision and have the case behind us," he said.

Now, the Health System can focus on replacing the current hospital on East Antietam Street in Hagerstown.

"Obviously, we're happy with the results and hope that this resolves it and we can get on with meeting the community's health care needs," said Assistant Washington County Attorney Kirk Downey, who represented the county in the case.

William Wantz, the appellants' attorney, didn't return two messages left at his office Wednesday.

Messages left for Hongell and the Bartelses also were not returned.

In 2001, Health System officials first announced plans to build a new hospital.

Hamill said construction is now expected to begin in February. The 496,000-square-foot hospital, near Robinwood Medical Center, will have 267 single-bed rooms, Hamill said.

Since 2003, when hospital officials proposed a $187 million hospital project, cost estimates have risen greatly.

The cost estimate was revised to $233 million in 2004. Now, the hospital project is expected to cost $275 million, Hamill said.

"It's gone up about $17 million in the last year," he said.

Out of $275 million, the hospital would pay about $20 million, and the other $255 million would be raised through bonds issued by the state, he said.

Gilbane Building Co. of Providence, R.I., will be the contractor.

Sally Hatch called the fight against the hospital "emotional from the get-go," inspiring both private support and public scorn.

She said the fight was about who should shape a neighborhood. The appellants thought Robinwood Drive was inappropriate for the new hospital.

Opponents cited problems with traffic, as well as a 1991 approval for Robinwood Medical Center that seemed to prevent a hospital from following.

In December 2005, the Washington County Board of Zoning Appeals voted to approve two zoning variances for the project. One waived setback requirements, so the hospital could connect to the existing medical center. The other allowed helicopters and ambulances, as well as a building taller than the ordinance permitted.

Eight members of a residents group, Citizens for Responsible Health Care, appealed the variances in Washington County Circuit Court in January 2006.

As a decision was pending, three members of the residents group withdrew from the case.

A circuit judge upheld the variances.

The remaining five appellants took the case to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals, which upheld the circuit court decision in August.

During the past session of the Maryland General Assembly, Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, filed a bill to make people who appeal a health care-related zoning or land-use decision liable for the costs of delays. The bill died in committee.

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