Commission Review on Hospital Stalls in Procedural Tangle Over Parking Lot

By IAN FEIN

The Martha's Vineyard Commission this week put off its final vote on the Martha's Vineyard Hospital expansion project.

A decision had been scheduled for this coming Thursday, but the commission instead now plans to reopen the hospital public hearing the following week, on Dec. 14, to accept additional testimony on a proposed offsite staff parking lot that has emerged as a potential stumbling block for the $42 million project.

Commission members acknowledged this week that they have found themselves in a somewhat awkward situation. They will begin deliberations on the hospital project Thursday, but will hold off on a final vote and substantive parking lot discussions until after the public hearing has been closed for a second time. The commission is reviewing the hospital expansion as a development of regional impact (DRI).

"It's a little complex, but it's clear in my mind," commission chairman Linda Sibley said yesterday. "It's my job as chairman to make this work, and I think we will be able to come to an orderly decision in a timely manner."

The commission heard 12 hours of testimony on the hospital project over the course of three nights last month. But because hospital officials added the offsite parking lot as a last-minute change to their proposal, it was not properly listed along with the current hospital parcels as part of the overall project.

One parking lot abutter - whom the commission later granted legal authority to appeal the hospital decision - noted the procedural oversight during the public hearing last month. Commission attorney Eric Wodlinger recommended this week that the regional planning agency resolve the issue by readvertising the project with the additional parcel. The legal notice requirement ensures that anyone with an interest in the lot - located across Eastville avenue in Oak Bluffs and owned by the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health - will have an opportunity to comment on the parking proposal.

Some commission members, meanwhile, have suggested they might deny the offsite lot and force hospital officials to develop an alternative parking plan. Questions about the lot reflect larger concerns that the existing 13-acre hospital site - which is bounded on three sides by water and situated in a historic residential neighborhood - is not appropriate or adequate for further expansion. Hospital officials have said the additional parking is vital to their project, and that they cannot afford to move to another site.

A key commission subcommittee met three times this week and planned to reach a recommendation on the hospital project Wednesday evening. But when the subcommittee took an unofficial poll on the overall project, they could not reach consensus because of differences of opinion on the parking lot.

Commission member James Athearn of Edgartown said he plans to pursue a condition that the offsite parking lot be removed from the proposal because it is detrimental to the historical character of the Eastville neighborhood. Commission member John Breckenridge of Oak Bluffs agreed.

"We and the hospital have worked very hard to cram an awful lot of activity into an extremely small site. But I'm not prepared to take that challenge a step further and expand across the street to a parking lot at the present time," Mr. Breckenridge said at the subcommittee meeting on Wednesday night. "I have not heard from the hospital that they've exhausted all other alternatives."

Commission member Christopher Murphy of Chilmark said considering the current need for parking, it would be impossible to approve a hospital expansion without additional spaces.

"To me the key to the hospital is the parking," Mr. Murphy said. "If they don't have the parking lot, they shouldn't build the hospital. It's that desperate; they desperately need a place to park."

Despite being the most vocal commission member in his concerns about the existing site, Mr. Murphy on Wednesday said the regional board has no choice but to approve the entire project. He expressed frustration that hospital leaders did not pursue an alternative location, but said the Island clearly needed a new hospital facility.

"In my opinion, the hospital has put us in a corner that we can't get out of and we need to approve it," he said. "It's on their shoulders this mess that they are making. We have tried very hard to show them a better way and it hasn't worked," Mr. Murphy continued.

"At some point we just have to back off and say: ‘Go build your hospital, and if it's in the wrong place, it's in the wrong place - too bad,'" he said. "We can leave them by the water, and they can fall into it."

Commission member Mark Morris of Edgartown on Wednesday said he saw no problems with the hospital plan. Regarding the offsite parking lot, both he and commission member Megan Ottens-Sargent of Aquinnah praised hospital officials for addressing neighborhood concerns by cutting its size roughly in half, from 100 to 50 spaces. But Mr. Murphy said the hospital would most likely return to the commission at a later time to add more parking spaces, and Mr. Athearn said he did not want to leave that decision for a future commission.

"This is a foot in the door, and once they've gotten it in that far, we're not likely to deny them further entrance," Mr. Athearn said. He suggested the hospital could develop a better way to accommodate the need for parking - perhaps by arranging more options for public transportation.

"Where there's a will there's a way. But I also believe where there's a won't there's a way," Mr. Athearn said. "If we say they won't park there, I think they will find another way."

The commission land use planning subcommittee is set to meet again today at noon, and commission members also plan to organize one last hospital site visit next week, where they will attempt to use helium balloons to illustrate the roof height and appearance of the proposed three-story, 90,000-square-foot addition.

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.

Dr. Martin Crane, a mainland physician and the governor's appointed member to the commission, joined the subcommittee meeting last night by telephone. Though he missed most of the discussion on the offsite parking lot, he said he was ready to vote in favor of the hospital expansion. He said he had no doubt that the new hospital would benefit Vineyard residents well into the future, despite any detriments with the land use plan.

"The hospital certainly needs a much better facility to serve the people, and I think that to me trumps some of the drawbacks that exist in the project - whether it be location or another thing," Dr. Crane said. "My medical background says this is the right thing to do at this particular time for the Island."