Planning commission denies hospital site



September 22, 2011 - 12:00 AM

The sentiments of residents in the far reaches of north Iola held sway over members of the Iola Planning Commission who voted 5 to 1 Wednesday evening against rezoning land on North Kentucky Street to allow a new Allen County Hospital to be built there.
The 5-to-1 vote will go as a recommendation to Iola City Council members who will have final say whether the 25-acre parcel will be zoned from residential to commercial.
Members of both the planning commission and the audience voiced their objection to the City Council’s communication to hospital trustees earlier this year that they would not annex land owned by Iolan Sally Huskey that sits at the intersection of Highway 169 and Oregon Road and is not within city limits.
That “no” vote would cause the hospital to lose the city’s commitment of $350,000 in sales tax revenues for the next nine years.
If the Huskey property were annexed, the city would need to negotiate with rural electric and water providers or miss out on utility payments incurred by the hospital, which average about $300,000 a year.
But what appeared to be a compromise between the hospital trustees and city leaders by settling on a site within city limits, came as a slap in the face to others.
Many saw the move as robbing the city of a potential site for further residential development.
“I’m concerned we’d be creating an island zoned commercial and neighboring properties will suffer,” said Ben McRae, a member of the planning commission.
“I’m all for the hospital, but not convinced this is ‘the’ site,” McRae said, to which Jay Kretzmeier, a hospital trustee, bristled.
“Please don’t say no unless you have an answer as to where a better site would be,” Kretzmeier said, who did a quick run-through of the several sites trustees have inspected, some more than once, for a new hospital until settling on the land owned by Chris Hopper, now of Wichita.
No one was more upset, and yet resolved, with the location on North Kentucky Street than Fred Heismeyer whose five acres would directly abut the hospital site to the north.
Heismeyer said he was never contacted by hospital trustees asking his opinion about the prospective hospital being situated so close to his property; that he suspected a hospital there will devalue the price of his house and land and that he was angry City Council members were not willing to work with trustees on developing the Huskey property.
“Don’t leave here thinking you’ve asked all the neighboring landowners their opinions,” he said, to which several in the audience murmured their assent.
Heismeyer said drawings of the new hospital show its parking lot directly across from his property and the predominant flight pattern of the helicopter coming from the northeast, flying right over his house. An EagleMed helicopter lands at the hospital about two times a month.
Heismeyer, husband of Joyce Heismeyer, chief executive officer of the hospital, made it clear his objection was his alone, and not the opinion of his wife.
Even after his rampage against the powers that be, Heismeyer voiced his support for the Hopper tract of land on North Kentucky, “In the interest of seeing this project go forward.”

PATRICK AND Sara Clift, who own a home on Funston Road about a mile west of the proposed hospital, worried about the loss of potential growth of residential neighborhoods.
“What does it do to the future of our neighborhoods with a commercial facility in our midst,” Sara Clift asked.
Dee Singer, who lives on Pryor Street and frequently drives on North Kentucky, worried about the safety of the street for pedestrians, especially, with an increase of traffic and the presence of emergency vehicles.
“North Kentucky has no sidewalks or shoulders,” she said. “If an ambulance comes down the road, there’s no place for a car to pull over.”
Jeff Bauer, code enforcement officer and who sits on the planning commission as an adviser, said the road would be addressed at a later time if the City Council approved the rezoning.

DAVID WRIGHT, architect with Health Facilities Group, showed commission members slides of the prospective hospital situated on the Hopper tract.
The land provides a “good even slope back up to the trees,” Wright said, with plenty of room to expand should a Veterans Affairs clinic also become part of the mix.
The land has passed all environmental studies, said Alan Weber, counselor for the hospital trustees. “It’s clean and suitable.”
Weber also explained the necessity of moving forward with a decision quickly.
“We’re running out of time,” he said, in regards to securing bank-issued loans which would come at a 1.5 percent lower interest rate than those out on the general market.
“That’s a difference of $2.5-$3 million,” Weber said for the total $25 million needed in loans to build the hospital.
Many of the planning commission members felt caught.
“I don’t want to say no and lose the chance to have a new hospital. But I don’t want to negatively affect residents in the immediate area,” said Chris Weiner. “If the proposal is rejected, what’s the potential of finding another site?”
Weiner said he preferred a location that would provide growth for other commercial prospects around the hospital such as the site on East Street to the entrance of Iola.
Kretzmeier said that site had been exhausted. “Engineers have warned us of its costs to remediate not only for the present, but also for the future.
“As a trustee, it would violate my fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of Allen County if the hospital were to be built on East Street,” Kretzmeier said decidedly.
As to the Huskey property, Kretzmeier said its annexation to the city “was a hurdle to overcome that was not within our control,” referring to the City Council’s decision.
Many could not let go of the Huskey property as being the superior site.
Larry Crawford, chairman of the planning commission, said he thought with two years to build the hospital that issues concerning utilities could be settled.
“What’s the squabble about? If we start now with negotiations surely they’ll be settled over the two years it will take to build the hospital. Let’s go with the Huskey land so we don’t bother the people,” Crawford said.
Sean McReynolds, a hospital trustee, reiterated the necessity of the hospital having access to the $350,000 in sales tax commitment from Iola.
“We need that income to operate the hospital,” he said.

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