MVC Approves Hospital Plan

Commission Vote Is Unanimous Despite Stubborn Reservations Over Location of Building; Offsite Parking Is Out

By IAN FEIN

The Martha's Vineyard Commission last night unanimously approved the $42 million renovation and expansion of the Martha's Vineyard Hospital despite widespread misgivings with the existing location.

During more than four hours of debate, a number of commission members aired their concerns about the present hospital site, which they described as too small, at risk for natural hazards and located within a historic residential neighborhood in the Eastville section of Oak Bluffs. But in the end they all agreed that those factors were eclipsed by the pressing need for an improved emergency medical facility on the Island.

"The location is not ideal," said Dr. Martin Crane, a mainland physician and the governor's appointee to the commission, who as a state official has visited more than 70 hospitals across the commonwealth. "But the benefits of improved health care for the people on the Island, and the consequence to an improved quality of life here, are indisputable, very clear and compelling, and far outweigh and override any of the detriments that I have seen in this project."

The commission over the course of multiple meetings this month reviewed the hospital expansion proposal as a development of regional impact (DRI).

The decision last night represents a significant victory for the Vineyard hospital, and comes at a time of sweeping changes in Island health care. Hospital trustees will soon replace their ailing 1972 complex with a state-of-the-art facility, and this month plan to sign an affiliation agreement with Massachusetts General Hospital, one of the top medical centers in the nation. The two landmark measures come only a decade after a financial crisis forced the Vineyard hospital into bankruptcy.

The unanimous 16-0 commission vote, however, did not prevent some members last night from venting their frustration with hospital officials, who they criticized for not pursuing an alternative location for the expansion project.

Commission member John Best called the hospital proposal a failure of long-term planning, and the commission in its deliberations did not accept the accuracy of hospital statements that moving to another site on the Island would make the project prohibitively expensive. Commission member Andrew Woodruff suggested that history may prove the existing location to be more costly in the years to come.

Though an independent consultant found an overall low risk from natural hazards at the Eastville site, more than one commission member said last night that the risk analysis may have underestimated the impact from sea level rise. Commission chairman Linda Sibley said she expects that the hospital site, which is bounded on three sides by water, will become a dangerous location.

"I will forever be deeply disappointed that the hospital and the community didn't somehow manage to get together and move this to a better location," Mrs. Sibley said last night. "On the other hand, as a commission we weigh benefits and detriments. And the benefits are usually all for the developer, while the community gets stuck with the detriments. But this is a project where the benefits accrue to the community - and they are huge benefits - and from that point of view it's the best thing I've seen."

More than a half-dozen hospital officials and employees attended the commission deliberations last night. And though they were largely pleased with the decision, the conditional approval will require them to return to the commission with a series of more detailed plans related to architecture, parking, waste, stormwater, erosion and landscaping, among other things. To satisfy concerns from neighbors, hospital officials must also now submit a construction management plan to the Oak Bluffs board of selectmen.

The most significant outstanding issue is the parking situation, as both hospital and commission officials acknowledge that the 260 spaces presently on the site do not meet current needs. The parking shortfall reflects larger concerns that the 13-acre hospital site was neither appropriate nor adequate for further expansion.

Hospital officials this week pulled from their proposal an offsite employee parking lot across Eastville avenue that emerged as a sticking point for the project. The commission had planned to delay its vote on the overall expansion by at least a week to take additional testimony on the parking lot, but in the end hospital officials deferred consideration of the offsite parking because the Massachusetts Department of Mental Health, which owns the property, had not yet agreed to the plan.

The commission last night demanded that hospital officials return at a later time with specific plans to accommodate another 70 parking spaces. Commission members originally planned to require their approval of that plan before the hospital could obtain a building permit. But because they wanted to give hospital officials more time to develop alternative solutions and did not want to hold up the start of the project, commission members agreed to put off the parking approval deadline until the certificate of occupancy at the end of construction.

Hospital officials are hoping to break ground in March, with construction expected to last roughly two and a half years, though the project still needs permits from a variety of Oak Bluffs town boards.

The commission decision is also subject to appeal by two groups of abutters that earned legal standing to challenge the regional planning agency. Windemere Road resident Patrick King, a member of one of the groups, attended the meeting last night and said he would meet with his neighbors before deciding whether to appeal.

Commission members also discussed the prominent visibility of the three-story, 90,000-square-foot addition that will be built on an elevated site in front of the original 1929 hospital building, but could not reach a consensus on whether that actually constituted a detriment for the project. Some felt that a large hospital building may serve as a welcoming symbol for Island visitors entering through the harbor.

Commission member Mimi Davisson warned that Vineyard residents should expect to see a dramatic change on the site and skyline. "This will create a very imposing structure, and we all need to be ready for it, because I think we might be shocked when construction starts," she said.

Voting in favor of the project were James Athearn, John Best, John Breckenridge, Christina Brown, Dr. Martin Crane, Mimi Davisson, Mark Morris, Christopher Murphy, Katherine Newman, Nathaniel Orleans, Megan Otten-Sargent, James Powell, Douglas Sederholm, Linda Sibley, Paul Strauss and Andrew Woodruff. There were no abstentions or dissents.

Following the vote, hospital board vice chairman Timothy Sweet said he was greatly relieved and pleased to have cleared such a major hurdle in the expansion plans.

"I hope everyone ends up as proud of this project as we are," Mr. Sweet said, "reservations aside."