Havre de Grace planning committee reviewed a city zoning ordinance Tuesday night that would allow Upper Chesapeake Health to build a new seven-story hospital and medical center in the city.
Questions were raised, however, by committee members about the proximity of a proposed helicopter pad at the hospital complex to residential areas near the proposed site at Route 155 and I-95.
The meeting, which the public was invited to attend during a previous city council meeting, drew a crowd of less than 10 people, most of whom were employees of Upper Chesapeake.
According to the ordinance, helicopter pads, or helipads, cannot be within 1,000 feet of a residence. That distance, however, can be increased depending on Federal Aviation Administration regulations.
Going off a concept plan for the project, City Councilwoman Barbara Wagner commented that the helipad appears to be at least 1,200 feet away from the Paddocks of Bulle Rock community.
Even with this, Wagner stressed that Upper Chesapeake can't build a helipad wherever it wants in the complex and there are still several steps the company has to take before final approval of the site plan.
"They can't arbitrarily place it where they want," Jay Bautz, deputy director of planning and zoning, said.
The company has an advisor who specializes in helipad design to find the optimal location for it, Dean C. Kaster, senior vice president of corporate strategy and business development for Upper Chesapeake, said at the meeting. In addition, the hospital's proximity to I-95 minimizes helicopters flying over residential areas as the helicopter could follow the highway to the medical center.
Councilman Joseph Smith chimed in, saying the idea of the medical center is to respond to accidents on I-95 and following the highway is a good possibility.
"I understand the concern," he said, "but it looks like, just based off of what I've seen, the flight pattern is to follow [I-95]."
An employee with Upper Chesapeake added that the medical center in Bel Air sees six to eight helicopter responses per month.
Jim Barry, president of Paddocks homeowners association, said he was slightly confused about the possible location of the helipad and hopes there will be more specific language in the ordinance to accommodate both residents and Upper Chesapeake while still ensuring that it can't be built closer to the homes.
Barry also expressed concerns with the retail portion of the mixed office/employment center and what kind of business could move nearby.
According to the ordinance, retail uses that are permitted range from a bakery or coffee shop to liquor store or package delivery service, such as FedEx.
Barry is concerned that retail space could invite businesses with 24-hour operations with additional noise and lighting issues, bring clientele "in not so a desirable nature" or "potential traffic" concerns.
Wagner explained that the committee and city council have a few options in regard to making amendments and giving final approval to the ordinance.
"Either we can stay on the current track," she said, and put a second read of the ordinance on the agenda for the July 16 council meeting, as was originally planned, or they could delay a second reading to Aug. 6.
Another factor is a planned community input meeting on July 24 that hasn't been formally announced to the public yet as Upper Chesapeake was waiting to see what amendments the council would come up with.
Kaster told the committee the company's intent is to move forward with the project in August and submit a preliminary site plan.
To do that, however, they need feedback from the community on the project, and to have a constructive community input meeting, the company needs to know what the ordinance says to provide adequate information.
If final action by the city council is deferred until the August meeting, Kaster said, "we can certainly live with that." He suggested, though, that the city council start working through amendments during the upcoming meeting, so if a vote is postponed until August it wouldn't set the project back too much.
On Wednesday, Kaster clarified that the hospital is meant to be a replacement for Harford Memorial and not an additional medical center or a shock trauma center.
"The range of emergency room services in the new facility would be similar to those offered now in Harford Memorial," he said. "It'll be larger and, of course, more modern and will have a larger amount of space for waiting [room]."
No matter when the city council would make a second read or final vote on the zoning ordinance, Kaster said, the community input meeting will still be held on the planned date, 7 to 9 p.m. July 24 at the Havre de Grace Community Center, 100 Lagaret Lane.