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Havre de Grace zoning changes leave open possibility for future regional hospital

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Proposed changes to Havre de Grace’s city zoning ordinance introduced this week would strengthen the city’s position regarding the latest development plan for University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s property at Interstate 95 and Route 155.

They also would leave open the possibility for a regional general hospital to one day be built at that location, the city’s planning director said.

“We are looking to Upper Chesapeake Health to have a second phase to its plan that would hopefully re-evaluate the need for where a general hospital should be,” Havre de Grace planning chief Ben Martorana said Tuesday. “We would argue we’re the best suited for it.”

The council has begun updating terms in its zoning code to reflect plans already announced by Upper Chesapeake Health for the 97 acres the Harford County based organization owns off Bulle Rock Parkway.

Several years ago, Upper Chesapeake announced it wanted to build a regional general hospital on the site, as well as outpatient facilities, medical office buildings and ancillary services such as hotels, parking facilities, pharmacies and restaurants. Site plans were submitted and approved by the city’s planning commission and renewed annually, as required by city law until actual development is underway.

But the large regional hospital concept waned, as Upper Chesapeake officials said there was too much uncertainty surrounding passage of the federal Affordable Care Act in 2010, and thus the organization could not make such a large financial commitment at that point.

“One of the challenges with zoning is maintaining definitions and uses in accordance with what changes in the industry and what changes in our world,” Councilman Michael Hitchings said after the proposed changes were introduced at Tuesday night’s city council meeting. “One of the things that faces us how is the definition for hospitals and medical facilities.”

The new definitions fall in line with the definitions used by the state, he said, “so that as that changes, ours will change in kind.”

“There should be no questions if the state accepts one sort of facility as defined by COMAR [Code of Maryland Regulations], would we accept the same sort of facility,” he said.

The ordinance takes into account many of the public comments – and concerns – that have been voiced in recent months about Upper Chesapeake Health’s $160 million, Vision 2020 Plan.

The plan, unveiled in early 2016, consists of closing the aging Harford Memorial Hopsital in downtown Havre de Grace, establishing a new free-standing medical center on its Bulle Rock campus, along with a new behavioral health/psychiatric hospital, and expanding Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air. This is the plan that emerged since the ACA was enacted.

Upper Chesapeake Health has applied for approval to build the 40-bed, “special psychiatric hospital” on 32 acres off Barker Lane, according to legal notices published recently by the Maryland Health Care Commission.

The organization has two more applications for certificates of exemption — one to convert University of Maryland Harford Memorial Hospital in downtown Havre de Grace from an “acute care facility” to a free-standing medical center at Bulle Rock, and the other to build space for more hospital beds above the Kauffman Cancer Center at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air, under review by the Maryland Health Care Commission.

One of the new zoning requirements proposed as part of having a free-standing medical facility in the mixed office/employment center near the interchange is that it “must provide a full service, 24/7 Emergency Department or its equivalent,” according to what has been introduced to the city council.

In addition to observation beds for short-term overnight stays up to 48 hours, a free-standing medical facility may also include areas for offices for primary and specially practices and additional outpatient ambulatory services.

The ordinance also proposes that Upper Chesapeake, or another hospital operator, must provide private ambulance services at its own expense.

“There’s been a lot of discussion of when a patient is transferred by Havre de Grace ambulance to a Havre de Grace facility, and then that patient has to go to Bel Air, those costs will be provided at no cost to the patient,” Council President Dave Glenn said.

If a patient comes to the new medical facility’s emergency room and is deemed to need surgery that would require an operating room or anesthesia, they won’t be available there, Martorana said.

“They’ll have to move the patient to another hospital and that will require more transportation services,” he said. “We have to be very cautious not to overtax our volunteer service, even if it’s only partially volunteer.”

In the future

The proposed amended ordinance also requires that a free-standing medical facility be built with the consideration that it could, at some point, be converted to a general hospital.

“Any freestanding medical facility must be designed and construction in such a manner as to allow for conversion at a future date to a general hospital without the need for alterations and modifications that would require demolition of more than 15 percent of any existing facility,” the amended ordinance reads.

The Havre de Grace community would still rather have had a full-service hospital, Martorana said, and this provision allows that to happen easily some day.

“We can only have one hospital in this region, we can’t have two. We already have one in Bel Air [Upper Chesapeake Medical Center]; it makes sense that’s where it would expand,” he said. “But if you look at the region, the best location to have a regional facility is in Havre de Grace.”

He said the city is looking for Upper Chesapeake to have a second phase to its plan that would include a re-evaluation of where a general hospital would be needed.

He pointed to the congestion around the I-95/Route 24 interchange and the hospital’s distance from the interstate highway versus a hospital right off of I-95, such as at the Bulle Rock site.

“So doesn’t it make sense to have a general hospital and a new emergency facility at a location with the best access and closes to I-95?” he asked.

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