Aberdeen planning commission approves preliminary site plan for freestanding medical center

A preliminary site plan for the development of University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s freestanding medical facility and adjoining medical office buildings on Merritt Properties’ Aberdeen Corporate Park campus off Route 22 was unanimously approved Wednesday night by the Aberdeen Planning Commission.

The seven-member commission gave its approval in front of a standing-room-only crowd gathered in the City Council chambers at City Hall. Nearly 100 people wrote their names on a sign-in sheet ahead of the meeting that had three items on its agenda, including the medical center.

Also reviewed was a request for annexation of 75 acres off Gilbert Road, for a future residential development, and the review of final subdivision plats for the second phase of the Eagles Rest residential development off Carsins Run Road on the far northwest corner of the city.

The Upper Chesapeake site plan calls for the existing 95,250-square-foot building on the 35-acre corporate center property — vacant since its completion several years ago — to be used for medical offices.

It also proposes building a three-story, 125,000-square-foot freestanding medical facility behind the existing building, with a helipad nearby, and a third office building, 15,400 square feet on two stories.

A possible future bed tower is delineated on the plan in the parking lot in front of the new freestanding medical facility.

The plan also includes 553 parking spaces on the site that is owned by Merritt Properties. UM UCH is the contract purchaser, according to the site plan.

The project is one of several legs of Upper Chesapeake Health’s Vision 2020 plan to close Harford Memorial Hospital in downtown Havre de Grace, build the freestanding medical center focused on inpatient and outpatient behavioral health services and consolidating medical services, with a greater number of medical beds, in an expanded Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.

The project must be approved by the state before construction can proceed; health system officials expect the new facilities will be in service by 2020 or early 2021.

Upper Chesapeake filed a site plan with the City of Aberdeen this year after months of disagreements with Havre de Grace residents and city leaders who want to preserve a full-service general hospital in the city.

The proposed medical center would have a full-service emergency room, a behavioral health treatment unit, as well as other services such as imaging, a laboratory and pharmacy, according to Ed Anderson, a project executive with the Erdman Co., an architecture, engineering and construction firm, and Phillip Crocker, a project manager with Upper Chesapeake Health.

Crocker said, in response to a question from City Manager Randy Robertson about the economic impact, that the project is expected to generate about 100 jobs — many employees will shift over from Harford Memorial, according to Crocker.

Aberdeen residents expressed concerns Wednesday about traffic, noise from helicopters, the impact on city services such as police, the type of care they could receive at the medical center and whether all services would be covered by Medicare.

“I do not feel like this is a worthwhile endeavor at this point,” Nancy Merritt, a resident of Mt. Royal Avenue, said.

Upper Chesapeake proposes a right-in, right-out entrance and exit from Route 22 that is nearly directly across the highway from an Aberdeen Fire Department station.

The Route 22 entrance leads to an access drive that drivers take to get through the medical center campus. Ambulances will approach the rear of the property via Middleton Road, which intersects with Route 22 and motorists now use to access businesses such as the Target store, Royal Farms convenience store, and the shops and restaurants at the nearby Aberdeen Marketplace shopping center.

Ambulances would drive along Middleton and then make a left on McHenry Road to access the emergency room entrance at the rear of the medical center property, according to Paul Muddiman, vice president with the engineering firm, Morris & Ritchie Associates.

One resident expressed concerns about how drivers must already navigate tractor-trailer traffic at the rear of Target along McHenry.

Improvements to Middleton and McHenry are not warranted, according to the project’s traffic consultant Muddiman, drawing scoffs from the audience.

Muddiman also said the medical center project is expected to generate less traffic than the development of the Aberdeen Corporate Park for business use, as proposed in 2011.

“This is 100 percent better than what we had, just regarding the traffic,” planning commission member Michael Hiob said of the medical center plan.

The traffic impact of the medical center remained a concern among commission members, though.

“We need to talk about this traffic,” commission member Terri Preston said just before a vote was taken. The board did not engage in further discussion, though, and all members approved the preliminary site plan.

Merritt, who lives near Aberdeen Middle School, remained unconvinced about the project, which she said should be a full-service hospital offering dental and vision services as well as medical.

“If they’re going to do this, it needs to be a hospital,” she said after the meeting.

Proposed annexation

The Gilbert Road annexation request is from Sage Gilbert LLC, a contract purchaser of two contiguous parcels, which is proposing to develop a 455-unit mixed residential community with rental apartments and townhomes, single-family detached and attached (villas) homes and a community center with swimming pool, according to information submitted to the city.

The commission delayed a vote on the annexation until its November meeting.

The plan calls for 322 apartments in seven buildings (100 one-bedroom, 222 two-bedroom and 28 three-bedroom), 56 one-car and two car-villas, 28 townhomes and 49 single-family homes about 3,000 square feet each with two-car garages.

The two properties are zoned AG/agricultural by Harford County. The annexation proposal on file with the city states the properties would be rezoned to an Aberdeen city classification IBD/integrated business district. A prior community meeting on the proposal was held Sept. 20.

In order for the property to be annexed and immediately receive the requested zoning classification, the developer will need to obtain a waiver from the Harford County Council, Joseph Snee, the attorney for the developer, confirmed in an email prior to Wednesday’s meeting.

Otherwise, state law would require a five-year waiting period after annexation before the zoning could be changed to a higher intensity use that what is permitted by the county AG zoning.

The Planning Commission’s role in reviewing the annexation is advisory to the City Council, which has the final authority to approve or reject the petition.

"Annexation is the process where a city (Aberdeen in this case) brings a new piece of land into the City limits,” Aberdeen Mayor Patrick McGrady wrote in a recent Facebook post in urging residents to get involved in the planning process for the medical center and the proposed annexation. “This is lengthy process, which culminates with a vote of the Aberdeen City Council to approve a request to be annexed. An annexation can be started by a owner or by the city. In this case, it was started by the owner.”

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