Wrangle over NDH expansion plan continues

By Keri-Sue Lewis and Sarah Imboden

More than 125 Rhinebeck residents packed tightly into Village Hall Nov. 19 for a public hearing on Northern Dutchess Hospital’s expansion plan.

Some residents and Health Quest staff proudly wore large white buttons on their shirts in support of the hospital at the village planning board meeting. While all speakers said they support the hospital, many remained critical of the revised parking plan.

To start, hospital representatives first described the wing in detail: It will be three stories high, with the first floor containing 14,000 sq. feet of non-profit hospital offices, 5,000 sq. feet of leasable medical office space, and 7,000 sq. feet of public space. Beds for 40 patients will be on the second floor, and a new operating suite will be housed on the third. The total for all will encompass 87,050 square feet.

Karri May of Steffian Bradley Architects, a firm hired by the hospital’s owner, Health Quest, to design the building, said the new construction was critical to keep the hospital up-to-date with the latest standards. “The new codes are so stringent, the existing beds can actually not be renovated to bring them up to current standards,” she added.

In addition, she said, a revised height variance of 3 feet, 6 inches will be requested for a roof to hide the heating and ventilation systems, rather than the 7-foot variance requested over the summer, which she said is a concession to reduce visual impacts on the neighbors.

For the outside work in the expansion plan, Larry Boudreau, a landscape architect hired by Health Quest, then noted that the latest revision keeps 1.51 acres of lawn up front, up from 1.18 acres in earlier versions of the plan.

Fifty parking spaces proposed for the front of the hospital will be moved to the northern part of the hospital’s campus in order to preserve more lawn, according to Boudreau. Boudreau said the most recent plan submission, dated Nov. 12, made no further changes to the front lawn area but moved a proposed maintenance shed to the back of the property in order to provide 12 more parking spaces close to the main entrance at the front of the hospital.

Planning board chair David Miller interjected that the village code states that for every 1,000 sq. ft. of hospital building, 2.5 parking spaces are required, and for every 1,000 sq. ft. of medical offices, five parking spaces are required because the intensity of use is greater. He said the board would be analyzing the parking situation for the project very carefully.

On the controversial issue of landscaping, Jeff Kane, from the project developer, Kirchhoff Medical Properties, told the group that there are 107 trees, a mix of deciduous and evergreen, and 266 shrubs that will be planted to replace those slated for removal. The goal, Kane said, was to enhance the hospital campus and screen it from passersby and neighbors. According to Health Quest’s website, 81 trees are to be removed as of the revised plans submitted Nov. 12.

Kane also said the hospital’s outdoor lighting will remain consistent with the master renovation plan presented in 2004, when he said the planning board enforced a limit of 1-foot candle brightness for each light fixture. Comparisons by critics to the lighting at Stop & Shop on Route 9 were not accurate, he added, because the grocery store’s light fixtures are 32 feet high and the hospital’s fixtures will be only 14 feet high. Also, he noted, the grocery store has a 4-foot candle average across its site, while the hospital is proposing the 1-foot candle as the minimum for safety.

First to speak in the public hearing was Village Tree Commission chairperson Cecily Frazier, who said the commission toured the site and believes there are too many trees and shrubs being added.

“Less is more,” she said.

“[We] feel it’s overplanted and there’s not enough space for the adult-sized trees as they grow. Nonetheless, we appreciated the effort to make this an attractive outdoor space and the plantings provide a very good attempt to keep the welcoming intent of the trees and lawns,” she added.

Next, the floor was opened to residents. And 26 of them stood up to speak.

Cate Long of Montgomery St., who has mounted a petition against the expansion project and founded the group Save Rhinebeck’s Green Space, expressed her concerns about Health Quest, specifically the ads they published in the Oct. 9 and Nov. 6 issues of the Observer.

“I think it’s a very corrupt approach on the part of Health Quest to advertise in a community paper that 34 trees would be removed when it is, in fact, 80,” she said.

In response to this concern, Kane told the Observer, “[T]he ad addressed the claims from the opposition group about tree-removal in front of the hospital in order to correct misleading information. The other trees have been mentioned and discussed — on the plans, at meetings … We have always been upfront about the project.”

Other residents expressed different concerns.

“Everybody in this room, I think, is deeply connected to the hospital…[it] is an intimate part of our lives, all of us who live in this area,” said Dorothy Crane, who has lived in the village for over 40 years.

But, she added, as much as she wants the hospital to remain successful, now that it is owned by Health Quest, she is concerned that a corporation with holdings in five counties could care more about its bottom line than about the community.

“The character of Rhinebeck’s village I’m not sure really is a part of that, unless we insist on it,” she said.

She also suggested that expanding parking is a short-sighted fix for a long-term problem, such as enforcing where hospital staff park and considering a parking garage or another option.

Rob Long, who owns property across the street from the hospital, agreed and said he would rather the hospital build a parking garage in the back of the property instead of losing the 0.26 acres of green space that the hospital estimates will be converted to parking spaces.

Dod Crane, a village resident, also suggested that a parking garage be explored in the future, and he expressed concern about the parking area lights during the winter when trees and bushes don’t screen neighbors and vehicle traffic.

Several speakers emphasized the importance of the hospital to the community.

“I think it’s beautiful what they’re going to do and I think it will actually be prettier. I love the walking paths,” said Mary Sanders, who lives by the hospital and said she recently moved to Rhinebeck for its schools, the hospital, and the natural beauty.

Sally Mazzarella, the president of Winnakee Land Trust, pointed to the jobs and services the hospital has provided to the community over the years. “The replacement of the oldest portion of [the hospital] is a necessity if they are going to survive,” she said.

Mazzarella also said she was pleased by the compromise the hospital reached in revising the plans in October. “To me, that made a tremendous statement that the people at Northern Dutchess Hospital still cared, not only about the quality of healthcare, but the quality of life in this community,” she said.

In the end, the board voted to close the public hearing after more than two hours of comments and discussion. The board members said little, but Miller said they would be reviewing the latest plans with its engineer shortly.

The hospital expansion project was on the Dec. 3 planning board agenda for further discussion of the site plan and was also on the Zoning Board of Appeal’s agenda for Dec. 19 at 7pm in Village Hall.

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