Despite fierce neighborhood opposition, Baltimore's Planning Commission approved unanimously last night the creation of a helicopter landing site for emergency cardiac patients at Union Memorial Hospital.
In an effort to bolster its cardiology program, hospital officials said they needed the helipad to treat emergency heart patients faster at Union Memorial's Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Heart Institute.
Currently, the hospital receives by helicopter patients with crushed or severed hands for treatment at its Curtis National Hand Center - but the landings are about a mile away at Lake Montebello, with transfer to an ambulance for the final part of the run to the hospital at University Parkway and Calvert Street.
But residents of the largely affluent areas that surround the hospital - including Charles Village, Abell, Oakenshawe and Guilford - argued at the commission's meeting last night that a helicopter traveling back and forth on 33rd street in a densely populated urban area will cause tremendous noise and an extreme potential for danger in the event of an accident.
Hobbs Horath, whose eighth-floor Carrollton Condominium unit faces the proposed helipad site, told the commission, "When Union Memorial starts hovering helicopters outside of people's bedroom windows at 3 o'clock in the morning, there will be no shortage of heart-stricken patients for them to care for."
The three-hour meeting was at times contentious as community residents sparred with the chairman of the commission, Peter Auchincloss. Nearly two dozen people spoke in both opposition and favor of the helipad.
Neighbors said they worried not just about the 75-decibel level noise that hospital officials said the EC175 helicopter would cause, but that the acquisition of an on-site helipad would be the first step for the hospital to become a Level 1 shock-trauma center - a move that a hospital official denied was envisioned.
After the Planning Commission said it was not in its jurisdiction to decide, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke - whose district includes Charles Village - said she will introduce a measure before the City Council mandating that the hospital get council approval if it should attempt to become a trauma center.
At the start of the meeting, the planning commission first voted that the helipad would be a minor amendment to the planned urban development, as opposed to a major one - enabling it to decide the issue. Many residents, including Becky Bridger, co-president of the Oakenshawe Improvement Association, and Clarke had testified that the helipad should be ruled a major amendment, which would have brought the issue to the City Council to decide.
"I'm satisfied because it represents a compromise that has meaning for all my neighbors," Clarke said. "The biggest concern from the beginning has been noise, safety and what's next. And this goes a long way to limit what's next. And it helps a lot to ease my own mind."
Bridger said that while she values having a prestigious hospital in her neighborhood, she was unnerved when in February the hospital conducted a helicopter fly-over for residents to hear the noise level for themselves.
"We live in a very, very compressed residential area, a historic neighborhood with old windows and old houses that shake and rattle when something so 2007 comes to the neighborhood," Bridger said.
Residents also argued the four other hospitals in the city have helipads, making Union Memorial's unnecessary. University of Maryland Medical Center, Johns Hopkins Hospital, St. Joseph Medical Center and Sinai Hospital all have helipads.
"In many circumstances, an ambulance is not satisfactory," said Dr. Jeffrey Quartner, chief of cardiology at Union Memorial. "If you're a heart patient in Westminster, Carroll, Harford, it needs to be done with a helicopter. Time is our enemy."
Hospital officials said last night that the helipad will be finished in nine months at the earliest.