Outcry over hospital’s expansion grows

There was far less give than take when 85 residents packed Rhinebeck Town Hall Sept. 23 for a town board meeting that ended up focused on Northern Dutchess Hospital’s controversial expansion plans.

In what should have been an unremarkable business meeting, there were these startling moments:

• Protestors of the expansion plan requested that the town board consider suing the village planning board over the environmental review process for the project.
• Town Supervisor Tom Traudt, who appeared reticent to discuss the issue, was then revealed to be an employee of Health Quest, owner of the hospital.
• Village Mayor Jim Reardon was roundly booed when he chastised the residents for expressing their opinions at a town board meeting after the village had its own hearings on the key issues of the project.
• A petition with 500 signatures opposing the expansion plan was called into question because the mayor said it was based on inaccurate information.

But a day after the meeting, in a walking tour of the hospital site, there was clear movement by hospital representatives to address some of the residents’ concerns, particularly on parking.

A Health Quest official then confirmed to The Observer that there would be significant changes to the plans in response to village and public concerns.

As of Oct. 4, the expansion plan called for a three-story, 87,050 sq. ft. wing built west of the Rosenthal Pavilion, to include 40 private rooms for patients and six new operating rooms on the upper two floors and medical office space for lease on the ground floor. In addition, 106 new parking spaces would be created in a lot that would replace some of the hospital’s greenspace fronting Route 9.

David Ping, Health Quest’s Senior Vice President of Strategic Planning and Business Development, could not give a date for when the revised plans would be submitted, but he reaffirmed to The Observer that Health Quest intends to be on the agenda of the next planning board meeting, which is Oct. 15.

Ping also said that the revisions would keep 80 percent of the front greenspace (instead of the previous 70 percent) along with a larger number of the mature trees at the site.

At the Town Hall meeting, the hospital plans were not on the agenda but became the focus when the public comment section opened.

Cate Long, speaking for the group “Save Rhinebeck’s Green Space” (SRGS), said the group believed village planners did not address community concerns during the required State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) of the hospital’s expansion plans. The SEQR review resulted in a negative declaration on environmental impacts in August.

She requested that the town board consider filing an “Article 78” against the planners, saying the declaration was incorrect and there would be environmental impacts that would affect the town. An Article 78 suit, if upheld, could compel another review of such impacts.

“I must compliment you on bringing this to the attention of the electorate,” Councilman Joe Gelb responded, noting that her presentation had drawn more attendees than usual at town board meetings.

Supervisor Tom Traudt’s response was less conciliatory. “We are a town that actually represents a village, too…You’re asking me to sue myself and for us to sue our own citizenry. It’s hard to swallow that concept,” he said.

After further discussion, Councilwoman Gina Fox noted, to the astonishment of many in the room, that the supervisor might have a potential conflict of interest because he is employed by Health Quest.

Traudt replied that he would not vote on issues involving Health Quest, but would continue to run the board meeting, despite suggestions from the audience that he recuse himself.

Health Quest officials later confirmed to The Observer that Traudt is head of security for Northern Dutchess Hospital. Traudt did not return requests for further comment.

Councilwoman Elizabeth Spinzia said the board could consider discussing the Article 78 concern with its attorney. Gelb encouraged SRGS to continue talking with Health Quest and representatives of the developer, Kirchhoff Medical Properties, on their concerns.

Long also presented the board with her petition against the project which now has almost 500 signatures. But Mayor Reardon, given his turn to speak later in the meeting, said the SRGS petition was invalid because it objected to a 9-foot height variance for the new building when the variance the hospital had applied for was 7-feet high.

Former town councilman Dod Crane, also with the SRGS group, told the board that the expansion of parking should be a town concern, not just a village one.

While “the hospital is an economic engine that we need,” he said, the town’s comprehensive plan, adopted in 2009, put great emphasis on greenery, open space, and preservation of the town and village gateways.

Ping then spoke for Health Quest to briefly address misconceptions about the project, emphasizing that Health Quest intends to plant a number of trees and shrubs to replace those demolished during the project and also plans to install a sidewalk along the length of the hospital property on Route 9 and Montgomery Street.

Next, Reardon spoke up.

“Thank you to everyone for being here…It’s sad you weren’t all over at village hall participating in the process when we were working on it over there,” he told the crowd.

When attendees protested that they had lacked information to do so, Reardon replied, “Any village information you want is at your fingertips if you care to keep yourself informed.”

He then described how those interested can subscribe to email updates from the village on its website.

To boos from the crowd, Reardon also said, “What I see going on here is not a community coming together and trying to develop something, I see people taking sides and fighting. And in my mind, that is unacceptable, that’s not the way we should be operating.”

Reardon also noted that public notices, meeting agendas and minutes for the village board and planning board are available on the village website. But as of Oct. 4, The Observer found, the website did not have full minutes of planning board meetings that occurred in July, August or September, two of which had included public hearings on the project. Only the resolutions passed at those meetings are available.

The meeting ended with no decisive action after the board closed the public comment section.

Village planning board chair David Miller told The Observer later that throughout the planning process, which began in January, Health Quest and Kirchhoff had cooperated with the board’s request for plan revisions and because of that process, the current plans are significantly different from those originally filed.

“The planning board continues to make efforts to balance the 21st-century demands for health care at NDH with a need to respect the interest of the neighbors and the Rhinebeck community,” Miller said. “The planning board paid specific attention to landscaping, drainage concerns, lighting, screening of parking, removal of buildings along Montgomery Street, access and egress issues, as well as issues like how NDH will handle smokers who will seek off-campus sites to smoke. The smoking issue was of major concern to the Montgomery Street neighbors.”

Responding to the possibility of an Article 78 filing, Miller said the town and public had been invited to be part of the planning process from the beginning.

“The Town of Rhinebeck has respected the functioning of the Village of Rhinebeck Planning Board as the most appropriate lead agency for the proposed project. The proposed expansion of NDH and the SEQR process have been open to public review from very early on and will remain so until final determinations are made,” he said.

The day after the meeting, representatives from Kirchhoff and Health Quest met with SRGS members and village officials to walk the site of the proposed expansion and look at the details.

Pam Leeming, of Locust Grove Road, was among those gathered. She was especially concerned about the parking plan, and said she had read the parking analysis on file for the project. According to her own analysis, she said, the new wing would require an additional 150 parking spots: 25 for the additional hospital services and 125 for the medical offices on the first floor.

The formal parking analysis, done by the Chazen Companies for Kirchhoff, reported a need for 268 new spots based on square footage. But it also found 168 existing parking spots that were under-utilized. So the expansion plan called for 106 new spots to be added to the south and west of the new addition.

Leeming suggested to Kirchhoff and Health Quest representatives that adding a valet service could help the hospital utilize current spaces adequately without expanding the parking lot.

By the end of the walk-through, Kirchhoff representatives had sketched a possible change to the plans that would preserve more green space and reduce the amount of new parking.

Ping later confirmed that valet parking is a possibility that Health Quest is considering.

When Health Quest submits revised plans, the planning board will have to review them and then decide whether variances are required and whether to hold a public hearing on the changes. If a zoning variance is necessary, the application would then go to the Zoning Board of Appeals for review.

The planning board’s next meeting on Oct. 15 begins at 7:15pm.

Miller said at the planning board’s Oct. 1 meeting that if the ZBA is involved, the two boards could consider holding a joint public hearing.

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