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Upper Chesapeake looks elsewhere for new medical center site, considers Aberdeen

Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, said that because of new requirements by tHavre de Grace for a proposed replacement for Harford Memorial Hospital at Bulle Rock, the company is considering sites outside Havre de Grace.
Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, said that because of new requirements by tHavre de Grace for a proposed replacement for Harford Memorial Hospital at Bulle Rock, the company is considering sites outside Havre de Grace. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun)

A replacement medical facility for Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace may not be at Bulle Rock in that city, University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health officials say.

Instead, the Harford County nonprofit healthcare company is looking at sites in neighboring Aberdeen to locate the freestanding medical center and psychiatric hospital it had planned near the Interstate 95/Route 155 interchange in Havre de Grace.

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Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady said last week a presentation would be made at Monday’s Aberdeen City Council meeting on planning commission recommendations to amend the city’s zoning codes and building heights to accommodate a medical facility as an alternative to a site in Havre de Grace.

The amendments, however, were only briefly mentioned Monday.

Despite Upper Chesapeake looking elsewhere, Havre de Grace is optimistic an agreement can be worked out with Upper Chesapeake and say the 130-plus-acre Bulle Rock site is the health system’s best option, according to a Havre de Grace official.

According to its plan called Vision 2020, University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health is proposing to build a freestanding medical center and a psychiatric hospital on the health system’s 97-acre site near Bulle Rock and consolidate medical services for Harford County in an expanded Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air by late 2020 or early 2021. Upper Chesapeake would then close Harford Memorial Hospital, which has stood in downtown Havre de Grace for more than a century.

“Since April, we are faced with a difficult but necessary consideration given the changing demands of the City of Havre de Grace on our Vision 2020 development plans on the Bulle Rock property,” Lyle Sheldon, president and CEO of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health, said in a statement provided to The Aegis late last week. “The requirements are significant enough that UMUCH is now exploring other potential sites outside the city that may be more feasible and favorable for UMUCH and the Harford County community overall.”

In early April, hospital officials were scheduled to appear before the Havre de Grace Planning Commission for what Havre de Grace Chief of Staff Steve Gamatoria said was approval of a site plan for a new free-standing medical facility and psychiatric facility that would have allowed Upper Chesapeake to move forward with construction.

A few hours prior, however, Upper Chesapeake pulled out of the meeting.

Upper Chesapeake and the city have been having discussions through their attorneys, who were scheduled to meet Friday afternoon.

“We’re hopeful the process will move forward,” Gamatoria said. “The mayor, City Council and constituents in general are hopeful something is going to occur here.”

The plan to close Harford Memorial and open a new facility outside downtown has been opposed by many people in Havre de Grace.

While ideally they would like a full-service hospital at Bulle Rock, the city understands that the health care industry has changed in recent years and such a facility won’t happen there, Gamatoria said.

Havre de Grace wants to leave open the possibility, however, that if the industry changes again, the freestanding medical center could one day become a full-service hospital, he said. The city Zoning Ordinance was amended earlier this year to require that a freestanding medical center be designed to accommodate expansion to a full-service hospital.

When Upper Chesapeake changed is proposal from a general hospital to a freestanding medical facility, a number of items needed to be addressed, Gamatoria said, including a traffic study that was “very dated.”

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If Upper Chesapeake didn’t want to do a new traffic study, he said, the city was asking that it upgrade the Route 155/Interstate 95 interchange at the beginning of the project rather than during its third phase.

“It would be a pretty expensive undertaking,” Gamatoria said. “That was the reason why, I think, they balked.”

The city is also requiring Upper Chesapeake to submit site plans for each lot on the Bulle Rock site as it is developed, he said.

The property was laid out with a hospital lot and a number of retail lots, which have a zoning that allows pretty broad-based retail, including hotels, Gamatoria said.

“Lots 2 through 6, although delineated in the plan, there was no real site plan approval for all those,” he said. “We are asking them at each time if something wants to come in, then there be site plan approval for each one of those.”

The city also determined that to be able to pump the highest volume of water up the hill to accommodate the maximum allowed development in the area — the hospital property as well as the undeveloped Green and Ianello properites — a larger line would have to be installed on Warren Street in downtown, Gamatoria said.

No engineering estimates have been done, but Gamatoria estimated that pipe replacement could cost between $1 million and $2 million.

“Upper Chesapeake, initially when they heard that, wasn’t happy about it,” he said. “But the city said they won’t be on the hook for the whole thing; it’s a shared cost.”

Those changes for the site planning process include new requirements for UMUCH related to city-mandated water and roadwork that had already been agreed upon, Sheldon, the Upper Chesapeake CEO, said in his statement.

“These conditions for approval have moved the goalposts for the project, substantially changing the previously expected timeline and increasing costs for the opening of the new campus,” he said. “Additionally, the City has created an unpredictable local approval process impacting future development for the property.”

Last Wednesday, Bel Air attorney Joseph Snee appeared before the Aberdeen Planning Commission on behalf of Upper Chesapeake, according to McGrady, Aberdeen’s mayor.

Snee was seeking amendments to the city’s B3 zoning district to permit helipads and to raise the building height to 70 feet, McGrady said.

“Upper Chesapeake owns land in Havre de Grace, but they are looking at alternatives to their space in Havre de Grace,” the mayor said.

“The regulations that govern these facilities establish that a replacement facility needs to be within 5 miles as the crow flies of an existing one,” McGrady said. “A handful of sites in Aberdeen are suitable for this. The Upper Chesapeake Health board is well aware of these great uses and they’re all on their radar.”

Those sites include the former Presbyterian Home site on Long Drive and the vacant Merritt Properties building, and property on Route 22 next to Target, the mayor said.

Snee, who confirmed he was at the meeting, had no further comment when contacted Friday.

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The amendments were not discussed during the Aberdeen council meeting on Monday evening.

McGrady brought the matter up toward the end of a work session that preceded the council meeting, noting the planning commission had approved the amendments last week.

“It’s not ready yet,” City Manager Randy Roberson replied.

He said Snee called him Monday, and Robertson asked him about making a public statement before the council regarding the hospital project.

“Joe [Snee] said he had talked with the [Upper Chesapeake] leadership, and said, ‘Not yet,’” Robertson said. “I’m going to respect that.”

The city manager said Snee also encouraged him to express the attorney’s thanks to the planning commission.

McGrady said later that no City of Aberdeen organization would make a presentation on a new hospital in Aberdeen, but another organization could make such a presentation.

“The City Council is very responsive to any parties who want to bring business to the City of Aberdeen,” he said.

As Upper Chesapeake considers options other than Havre de Grace, “We are passionate about our vision of improving our health care delivery system focusing on increasing access to care, coordinating efforts between hospital care providers and community care providers and developing new models of care delivery supported by state-of-the-art technology,” Sheldon said in his statement.

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