Hospital's Building Proposal Draws Concern, Support at Final Two MVC Hearings

By IAN FEIN

An offsite parking lot emerged this week as a critical sticking point in the continuing Martha's Vineyard Commission review of the proposed Martha's Vineyard Hospital renovation and expansion project. Questions about the parking lot reflected longstanding concerns among some commission members that the existing 13-acre hospital location in the Eastville section of Oak Bluffs may not be appropriate or adequate for further expansion.

Everyone seemed to agree during the two public hearing sessions this week that the existing site - which lies within a historic residential neighborhood and is surrounded on three sides by water - is not an ideal location for an emergency health care facility. But though hospital officials said that in a perfect world they would move to a more central spot on the Island, they maintained that such an option was impossible for financial reasons.

The commission is reviewing the proposed $42 million hospital project as a development of regional impact (DRI).

"Some people want to present this as a question of whether we're going to build a new building here or somewhere else," hospital chief executive officer Timothy Walsh told the commission last night. "But really it's a question of whether we build a new hospital here, or stay in the existing building. Because of the dollars it would take, I can tell you we're not going to another site. Not for a long, long time."

After a five-hour opening meeting last Thursday, the commission held two more public hearing sessions on the hospital project this week. The meetings - which were held in the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven and Old Whaling Church in Edgartown - lasted a total of seven hours spread out over the last two nights.

The commission will accept written comments on the hospital project until 5 p.m. Thursday, and will hold what is expected to be the final regulatory session later that evening for the limited purpose of examining the written record. After the public hearing is officially closed, the commission is scheduled to make a final permitting decision on the project in early December.

If approved by the commission, the hospital project will also need permits from a variety of Oak Bluffs town boards. Hospital officials are hoping to break ground on the project in March, with construction expected to last roughly two and a half years.

The two sessions this week marked the only opportunity for Island residents to speak formally during the regulatory process of the commission. Public comments included a variety of people both in favor and opposed to the project on the existing hospital site.

Former Edgartown selectman and longtime hospital administrator Fred B. (Ted) Morgan Jr. on Wednesday shared memories from his time on the hospital building committee when it planned for the current 1972 facility which is now in dire disrepair. Mr. Morgan said the building committee went against his wishes and pursued a Cape Cod-style hospital, instead of a design that would have proved more lasting.

"This hospital has been a nightmare from a maintenance standpoint and functionally a very inefficient hospital," Mr. Morgan said. "The patients and Island people who work in hospital deserve a state-of-the-art modern medical facility on this Island that is going to last for years."

Former Martha's Vineyard Commission chairman Richard Toole of Oak Bluffs - who just this week earned reelection to the regional planning agency, which he will rejoin in January - argued forcefully that the time is right for the hospital to move to another location. He said he knows of many people who agree, but are reluctant to speak out against the hospital plan "because it is sort of like being against motherhood and apple pie."

"A new site might cost more initially, but would probably be more cost-efficient over the long run," Mr. Toole said on Wednesday. "[Financial] contributors to the hospital might be more willing to contribute more money if they felt their money was supporting a more sustainable and appropriate project."

A number of hospital neighbors voiced concerns with the expansion project, and complained that hospital leaders have treated them with indifference during the planning process. In particular, a few neighbors sounded off on the 100-space employee parking lot proposed for the opposite side of Eastville Avenue.

The idea for the lot arose late this summer, when hospital officials determined that the existing site could not contain all of the necessary parking. If approved, the offsite parking lot would raise overall hospital parking to 370 spaces, up from the current 260.

The Oak Bluffs historical commission delivered a letter to the Martha's Vineyard Commission yesterday expressing its concerns with the parking lot plan and requested a joint meeting with hospital leaders and the commission. Historical commission member David Wilson said last night that he is worried that the parking lot will further encroach upon the Eastville residential neighborhood, which is one of the oldest sections of Oak Bluffs and still has a number of important historic homes. Hospital officials acknowledged this week that the proposed parking lot is currently zoned for residential use, and may need to be reclassified in order to allow for the parking.

David Gross, whose mother-in-law Anne Gordon, 84, lives in a historic home abutting the proposed lot, said the offsite parking plan was yet another sign that the hospital has outgrown its existing 13-acre site and should move to a larger and more suitable location elsewhere on the Island.

"There's an old railroad saying that when you're on the wrong track, every stop is the wrong stop," Mr. Gross said on Wednesday. "[By staying at the existing location,] the hospital is on the wrong track."

West Tisbury resident Nancy Dole raised additional questions about the offsite parking plan when she suggested that the proposed site ended up in the control of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health through the efforts of the late Dr. Milton Mazer, a well-known West Tisbury psychiatrist and founder of Martha's Vineyard Community Services, who envisioned the property as a possible residence for mental health patients in recovery.

Hospital officials this week did not answer questions about ownership and control of the parking lot site, or whether they had an explicit agreement from the state mental health department to use it for parking. They also said they did not have a secondary parking plan in case the lot was not allowed.

In closing remarks last night, hospital board of trustees vice chairman Timothy Sweet referred to the parking concerns as the only real issue that remained before the commission. He urged commission members not dwell on the minor minutiae of the project.

"We can't keep talking about perfect, because we're not going to get there," said a visibly irritated Mr. Sweet. "If there's one thing I've seen here these last two weeks, it's that there seems to be a pension for making perfect the enemy of great. We don't have perfect here, and we never will, but we do have a great project."

He acknowledged that the existing hospital site is smaller than desired, but he reiterated once again that financial realities will keep the facility at its current location.

"This is all the money we have, and I don't think there's any more out there. We've raised every penny in donations, and I don't think you're ever going to see this moment again in the history of Martha's Vineyard," Mr. Sweet said. "You can't let this pass. If we don't get this hospital up soon, we're going to start going backwards. This is too important to miss - way too important."