Hospital Plan Peppered with Questions

By IAN FEIN

Neighbors last week aired concerns about plans for the new $42 million Martha's Vineyard Community Hospital, while other Island residents asked pointed questions about the wisdom of rebuilding such a critical facility on the vulnerable 13-acre property off Beach Road in the Eastville section of Oak Bluffs.

The comments came during a public information session hosted by the Martha's Vineyard Commission last Thursday at the Tisbury senior center.

Vineyard Haven resident James H. K. Norton referred to a report authored by a commission subcommittee that identified 15 alternative hospital locations that are more central to the Island population and less susceptible to threats posed by natural disasters and flooding. Two of the alternative sites identified in the study are on Norton family farmland.

"If I speak from any platform, it is from that of the common good," said Mr. Norton, who cited a long association with the hospital, dating back to a 1920s plaque featuring the names of ancestors on both sides of his family. "The hospital ought to be an institution - one of the few - that is of the entire Island. And it ought to respond to what is best for the entire Island."

Roughly 60 people attended the meeting last week, about a dozen of them seasonal residents. The meeting was originally scheduled as the first formal public hearing on the project, but was changed to an informal session because of scheduling conflicts. The MVC will review the hospital project as a development of regional impact (DRI),

After a lengthy presentation by hospital officials and architects, the commission accepted a half-hour of public comment. Nine residents spoke, seven of them close neighbors to the hospital, and not one outwardly in favor of building the new hospital in its current location.

Hospital officials were not allowed to respond to the comments, and were told to withhold their answers for the first official hearing. The public testimony was recorded on video, and will be entered into the formal record once the hearing begins, likely this fall.

The delayed start to the MVC review could affect the project time line proposed by hospital officials. But Tim Walsh, chief executive officer at the hospital, said yesterday that he still hoped to obtain all the necessary permits by Dec. 31, with construction to start soon after. If approved by the commission, the hospital project also will need permits from several town boards, including the Oak Bluffs conservation commission, planning board and sewer commission.

Hospital leaders also still have more funds to secure. They are in the final stretch of a $42 million capital campaign, the largest in the history of the Vineyard, and announced earlier this month that they had topped $36 million in private donations.

As described by officials last week, the project aims to renovate, expand and replace the decrepit 1972 hospital with a state-of-the-art, green-designed facility. The proposal would increase the total number of hospital beds from 15 to 24, and would house all of the inpatient rooms - as well as the surgery, imaging, outpatient services and the emergency department - in a new 90,000-square-foot, two-story addition.

The facade of the original 1929 cottage building would be demolished, and the 1972 wing would be renovated to house physician and hospital administration offices. The proposal calls for about 11,000 square feet of demolition between the two existing buildings.

Some neighbors on Thursday raised questions about the construction work, which is slated to last as long as 30 months. Windemere Road resident Victor Linn asked where the equipment would be stored, and how hospital officials plan to mitigate the noise pollution.

"Some of us rent our property to others - who will be cheek by jowl with the construction," Mr. Linn said. "Man, that's going to be a lot of noise."

Windemere Road residents Bernard and Connie Adelstein also asked questions about the plans. "I'm not opposed to living next to hospital. In fact, we've lived with it for many years," Mr. Adelstein said. "But I do have some concerns."

Most of the issues raised on Thursday were related to traffic, access and parking. More than one person said the existing parking capacity of 260 spaces was insufficient, with cars frequently spilling onto the bike path.

The size of the hospital property limits potential for additional parking. The current design would add only 10 on-site parking spaces, but incorporates preliminary plans for employee parking on a piece of vacant land across Eastville avenue that could accommodate over 100 spaces. A number of residents suggested that the MVC will have to look hard at the proposed lot, which would force pedestrians to cross a heavily travelled road.

Concerns also focused on whether the hospital at its current site could adequately serve the public during a natural disaster, such as a major hurricane or particularly large storm. The hospital is in a flood zone and stands only about 15 feet above sea level.

"If we do have an emergency - a very bad storm - and ambulances can't come up that road, it doesn't sound like there's an alternative," said Sylvia Thomas of Edgartown, one of only a few non-neighbors to speak on Thursday.

Windemere Road resident Patrick King asked why, despite its proximity, no one from the hospital has participated on the Lagoon Pond drawbridge committee. Located a few hundred yards from the hospital and one of only two ways to reach it, the drawbridge has suffered frequent closures in recent months and is slated for a complicated, two-phase replacement project in the coming decade.

Such long-term planning issues should be studied by independent parties, Mr. King said. The commission and hospital have hired a group from Woods Hole to carry out a risk assessment of the current site, which should be completed within the next two months.

Mr. King said that 15 years ago he stood up during public hearings on the Windemere Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Facility and cited an independent analysis which suggested that it would go bankrupt within two years.

Windemere, which shares space and services with the hospital, lost money as soon as it opened in 1994, and two years later was forced to declare Chapter 7 bankruptcy when it defaulted on an $8 million bond that was used to build the home. The Windemere bankruptcy later led to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy for the hospital, which righted itself in 1998 after an emergency board of trustees stepped in to turn around the crisis.

"I was painted as a black sheep, and people said my comments were skewed," Mr. King said last week. "Well, my comments were the only ones that came true."