This time it’s ‘not in my yard’
I’ve written previously about the local hospital in my community trying to complete a massive expansion in the tiny, historic village of Rhinebeck. Rhinebeck is a 300 year-old American treasure with one of the largest collections of nationally landmarked buildings in the nation. The hospital is surrounded with nationally land-marked homes, including my own.
Northern Dutchess Hospital is one of several hospitals run by the non-profit operator Health Quest. The salaries of those who run Health Quest, like most hospital salaries, are in the high six figures (page 29). Northern Dutchess Hospital is highly profitable and is probably subsidizing the money-losing operation of Health Quest’s Putnam Hospital. The hospital has focused on providing specific medical procedures and its birthing center delivered over 870 babies in 2010. The village population is only about 2,700.
I learned of the expansion last March when local papers reported that the developer, Kirchhoff Medical Properties, was seeking a PILOT (payment of lieu of taxes) for the first floor of the hospital expansion. A PILOT would allow that space to be privately owned by the developer and leased out to private doctors as medical offices. The Village Trustees, under media scrutiny, decided that that a plan for privately-leased physician offices in a non-profit hospital does not qualify for a PILOT.
As an adjacent property owner, I was invited to come to a public hearing on the project. Along with several of my neighbors, I got a look at the site plans for the expanded hospital. The plans included cutting down the majority of the 40 to 60-foot trees in the multi-acre lawn in the front of the hospital, paving it and lighting it at night. The historic neighborhood will be given the equivalent of a grocery store parking lot in the hospital’s expansion.
It has been a fight since that June hearing to retain the green space. According to the parking analysis, the massive parking lot is needed for the physician medical offices that are the focus of the proposed PILOT. But the Village Zoning Code does not allow professional medical offices in a hospital. It’s never been clear how the planning board rationalizes contravening the law on this matter. Rhinebeck is recognized nationally as a Tree City and preserving and planting trees has always been a community goal.
Along with a group of community members, I filed a lawsuit against the village planning board and hospital because they neglected a number of state law requirements in the environmental review process. A positive outcome for the lawsuit, led by a land use attorney, would be that the State Supreme Court judge assigned to the case, Maria Rosa, would require that the Village Planning Board restart the environmental review process and allow full transparency and community input required under state law.
Generally when these types of legal actions are filed, the public agency being sued will slow down or stop the process until the judge dismisses the case or renders a decision. But Rhinebeck’s village planning board has sped up the process. Meanwhile, the hospital has taken to running full page color ads in the local paper that include false information. They claim in these ads that they will be demolishing 34 trees. Here is the claim advertised in the local paper repeatedly over several weeks:
When we obtained the site plans and documents through a FOIA request, a tree expert had prepared a report for Health Quest (page 5 of the PDF) that said 80 trees would be demolished:
It’s very discouraging that a developer and hospital operator can so aggressively influence public opinion with false information. If the information is not false, the planning board has not notified us of the discrepancy. The only way to rebut the claims is to challenge them.
Is the law strong enough to hold back this project? It’s the most interesting process I’ve ever been involved in. Stay tuned.