Upper Chesapeake Health is considering abandoning its Havre de Grace site and locating its new freestanding medical facility and behavioral health hospital in the vacant Merritt building on Route 22 in Aberdeen.
Upper Chesapeake Health is considering abandoning its Havre de Grace site and locating its new freestanding medical facility and behavioral health hospital in the vacant Merritt building on Route 22 in Aberdeen. (MATT BUTTON | THE AEGIS FILE)

The City of Aberdeen is poised next week to change its development regulations and help pave the way for University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health to locate a new medical facility in a vacant building on Route 22.

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The expected action would in turn enable Upper Chesapeake Health to abandon a similar project in Havre de Grace, one that the health organization’s representative says is “seriously stalled.”

“The negotiations with the City of Havre de Grace on the zoning process have not progressed and we needed to consider other options,” Martha Mallonee, director of corporate communications, marketing and public relations for Upper Chesapeake Health, wrote in an email Tuesday.

But the mayors of the two neighboring municipalities say they aren’t convinced abandoning Havre de Grace for Aberdeen is in the best interest of Upper Chesapeake, the dominant acute health care provider in Harford County, or the thousands of residents its serves.

Upper Chesapeake has a 90-day feasibility contract on the 95,250-square-foot Merritt Properties building and adjoining property on Route 22 to put its new freestanding medical facility and behavioral health unit that the organization had been seeking approval to build in Havre de Grace, according to Joseph Snee, a Bel Air lawyer representing Upper Chesapeake.

To do that, however, adjustments are needed to the city’s development regulations — for hospitals to be exempt from building height requirements and heliports to be a permitted use in a B3 zoning district, Snee told members of the Aberdeen Planning Commission during their meeting July 23.

The Aberdeen Planning Commission recommended that those amendments be approved, and the Aberdeen City Council introduced them at its regular meeting last week.

During public hearings on the amendments at Monday night’s meeting, neither the mayor, city council members nor anyone from the public commented on them.

Monday’s meeting was added to Aberdeen’s meeting schedule last week, which means the city council will now meet three weeks in a row, when it typically meets every other week.

The amendments are expected to be on the agenda for final approval at the council meeting coming up next Monday, Aug. 27, according to city officials.

Much to be done

Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady said Tuesday that while he can’t predict what the council will do next week, “I imagine the council will vote to approve the ordinances introduced…I have not heard any objections.”

He pointed out that no site plan has been submitted, nor “any documentation from the group who wants to locate at that facility,” and he thinks it would be a waste if Upper Chesapeake were to sell its Havre de Grace property and pursue a new one “if they can’t work out their differences” with that city. The two municipalities borders nearly touch, after a succession of annexations by both over the past 25 years.

A freestanding medical facility would, however, add value to the community, McGrady said, but said the city stands to lose about $200,000 in property tax revenue on the site if it’s bought by Upper Chesapeake, a non-property tax paying entity.

”If the Upper Chesapeake teams tries to build in Aberdeen, the city has demonstrated willingness to cooperate and collaborate on this project and any development project,” McGrady said.

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The facility Upper Chesapeake proposes to locate in Aberdeen is the same as what has been proposed for Havre de Grace — a freestanding medical facility to accommodate emergencies and short stays for observation and a special hospital with 45 beds to treat behavioral health patients suffering from psychiatric and addiction issues, according to Upper Chesapeake.

Shifting plans

University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health has had site plan approval since 2013 in Havre de Grace for a site Upper Chesapeake owns off Bulle Rock Parkway, near the interchange of Route 155 and Interstate 95.

The proposed new facility would replace the aging Harford Memorial Hospital in downtown Havre de Grace that Upper Chesapeake operates along with the larger and newer Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.

The hospital system, however, has encountered pushback from Havre de Grace city officials, Snee said previously, explaining Upper Chesapeake is “motivated by time.”

“The latest conditions for Planning Department approval [from Havre de Grace] have moved the goalposts for the project, substantially changing the previously expected timeline and significantly increasing costs for the opening of the new campus,” Mallonee, the Upper Chesapeake spokesperson, said. “Additionally, the City has created an unpredictable local approval process impacting future development for the property.”

The Merritt site in Aberdeen, according to Mallonee, is partially developed, “which saves both time and expense in our planning.”

“It is already situated in a retail setting, which would have been a later development phase for our property in Bulle Rock. Public transportation has been a community concern for the Bulle Rock property while the Merritt property on Route 22 resides on the local bus route,” she said.

How the site would be developed to accommodate the freestanding medical facility and special psych hospital is still being evaluated, Mallonee said.

Cooperation, not ‘capitulation’

The trouble began in Havre de Grace after Upper Chesapeake downsized the footprint of its hospital by 100,000 square feet, Snee said, and the city’s planning director required a new site plan – something the lawyer said was unnecessary and that his clients would not agree to because of the expense and time involved.

Havre de Grace officials had been working with Upper Chesapeake to help accommodate its schedule of breaking ground by July 1, 2018, Mayor William T. Martin said Tuesday.

To do that, city engineers worked with Upper Chesapeake engineers and put the primary focus on the freestanding medical facility and special psychiatric hospital on the Bulle Rock site, he said.

Other plans for the 97-acre property were merely concept plans, “nothing but boxes on paper,” he said.

In 2013, when Upper Chesapeake received its first site plan approval, it had planned to build a full-service hospital, flanked by medial offices, an ambulatory care center and substantial retail, including a hotel. Those plans were dramatically scaled back, however, and in early 2016 Upper Chesapeake announced it would start with the freestanding medical center and psychiatric hospital, leaving decisions about the rest of the site for the future.

Just before the April 9 Planning Commission meeting when the city was expected to approve the site plan, Upper Chesapeake said it wanted approval on all the Bulle Rock parcels at once, Martin said.

“We can’t approve things that haven’t been thought out,” Martin said.

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The city had also said it wanted another traffic study, at Upper Chesapeake’s expense, and a study to determine water use as the property is developed which could ultimately require the hospital system to pay a share of a water line upgrade, if it was determined to be necessary.

“That wasn’t what was agreed upon,” Martin said. “They were five hours away from approval and they withdrew their application. They didn’t say why.”

The mayor said he couldn’t ignore the laws and approve the plan Upper Chesapeake wanted.

“For the City of Havre de Grace to capitulate to their demands would require this administration to overlook and ignore the existing laws of development,” Martin said. “I will do everything in the authority of my office to accommodate Upper Chesapeake’s plans, but I can’t ignore the laws.”

Havre de Grace has already bent over backward to work with Upper Chesapeake, he said.

“I committed my staff, my resources to help them meet the April 9 deadline for site plan approval and they pulled it five to six hours away from it,” Martin said. “They were there, on the goal line. The shovel should have been in the ground over a month ago here in Havre de Grace.”

Expense and history

Martin said it appears Upper Chesapeake is going to Aberdeen, but questions why the hospital system would abandon an open site in Havre de Grace, and spend the money to retrofit a building that wasn’t built for a medical facility, when it could improve the existing hospital downtown.

“And why are they severing a relationship with a city that bore the first hospital in Harford County more than 100 years ago,” Martin said. “We’ve had a relationship with the hospital for a long time.”

He doesn’t begrudge the health system from making financial decisions that are in its best interest, but he objects to Upper Chesapeake blaming the city for “moving the goalposts” and its “unpredictable” planning process.”

“Nothing could be further form the truth. It’s unfortunate they had to resort to statements like that,” he said.

While the mayor says “I guess they’re going to Aberdeen,” he hasn’t closed the book on Upper Chesapeake building at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace.

“I’m at a point now I have to stop, there’s nothing else I can do,” Martin said. “The offer is on the table. Havre de Grace is always willing to talk to University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health. We have an open door.”

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