The owner of Harford's two hospitals has taken preliminary steps toward the purchase of a potential site for a hospital in Bel Air.
Upper Chesapeake Health System has deposited $50,000 to hold a 24-acre site in the heavily developed Route 24 corridor and agreed on a price of $2.5 million with the owner, Bel Air Land Development II, town and hospital officials confirmed last week.
But officials at Upper Chesapeake, owner of Fallston General Hospital and Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace, said they're considering several other properties.
Upper Chesapeake officials refused to identify the other properties but said they had made a deposit only on the Bel Air site.
The deposit will hold the property until Dec. 15.
"We are in the preliminary process of assessing several properties and assessing what the future health care needs of Harford County will be and how best to serve those needs," said Allan Acton, Upper Chesapeake's vice president for marketing and business development.
The Bel Air site is near the Motor Vehicle Administration office south of Bel Air.
The site's owner, Bel Air Land Development II, represents 11 local investors.
Frederick Mitchell, Upper Chesapeake's chairman, has said a hospital on the Bel Air site would cost at least $50 million to $60 million.
To build a hospital on the site, Upper Chesapeake will need approval from the state and from town commissioners.
When the town annexed the land that includes the site in 1989, commissioners said it would be used for a hotel, conference center and office complex.
The commissioners would have to change the terms of the annexation agreement to allow ahospital, said Carol Deibel, director of the town's Department of Planning and Community Development.
L Such an amendment would require a public hearing, she added.
Critics say Bel Air's no place for a major hospital.
Building one on the site would "go totally against the grain of the original annexation," said Peggy Lucas, head of the Bel Air Historic Commission.
Ms. Lucas said construction of a hospital would destroy the hometown flavor and character of the county seat.
"I'm absolutely against any development over and above what ** was originally provided for," she added.
Upper Chesapeake also would need a variance from the town's zoning board because regulations limit building heights to three stories or a maximum of 40 feet.
A provision that would have permitted developers to add a fourth story if they set aside 1 percent of construction cost for artwork or a "park feature" in the town was deleted from a recently proposed amendment to a land-development ordinance because developers didn't think the trade-off was worthwhile.
Upper Chesapeake also needs a "certificate of need" from the state health regulators.
That requires an application with a development plan and documentation of the needs among the population the hospital is intended to serve.
The application also requires proof that no cheaper or more effective alternative exists; an assessment of the immediate and long-term financial feasibility of the proposed hospital; and its impact on existing health care systems in the area.
Mr. Acton said Upper Chesapeake is gathering the required material but has yet to submit it to the state.
Upper Chesapeake plans to decide on a site and move forward with its plans by December, he said.