Hospital Makes Zoning Request For High Street

Published 4:46 pm Thursday, January 6, 2011

FARMVILLE – Centra Southside Community Hospital is requesting zoning action to accommodate plans to establish administrative offices at 900 High Street and a billing office at 1104 High Street.

The hospital recently purchased both properties and a zoning adjustment is necessary for the two residential properties to be used for the proposed business purposes.

Centra Southside Community Hospital President and CEO, Dr. Gwen Eddleman, wrote Town Manager Gerald Spates about the zoning needs in a letter delivered Wednesday and then she addressed the issue face to face during Town Council's January work session Wednesday morning.

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Town officials accepted the written and verbal communications as the hospital's formal request for the Town to consider the necessary zoning adjustment. Both properties are currently zoned R1A.

The request will now be handled per normal procedure, which could see Town Council turn the request down during its January meeting Wednesday night, or refer the request to the Town's planning commission, which would hold a public hearing as part of its deliberations. If the planning commission recommends approval, Town Council would hold its own public hearing before making a final decision to approve or deny the zoning request.

The planning commission and Town Council could also hold a joint public hearing.

There was much discussion at this Wednesday's work session about the proposed use of the two High Street properties by the hospital for non-residential purposes.

Dr. Eddleman explained in her January 5 letter that administrative offices are currently located in trailers and due to limited space within the hospital the trailers need to be converted to house the sleep clinic and an oncology practice.

“Southside is asking for your help in determining the best way to accomplish Southside's goals while complying with all zoning ordinances and good zoning practices,” Dr. Eddleman writes.

The hospital sees two possible zoning options.

The first would be a zoning amendment and conditional use permit to allow as an additional permitted use “office/healthcare use by a nonprofit with a conditional use permit.”

Or, secondly, rezoning the properties R3, along with the remainder of the hospital's property between High Street and the hospital building, which would allow for the proposed uses.

Dr. Eddleman told council that she was attending the work session to respond to any questions that council has for her or any information or advice “that you would give me concerning some of the phone calls that I understand you may have been receiving from citizens.

“I have begun having individual meetings with residents on High Street, meeting first with the people closest to the properties that the hospital has purchased…and will continue that process all in that area…to address their concerns,” she told council members, who made it clear that residents have been calling them on the phone with concerns about what might be done on the properties and how it could affect their quality of life, their property values and High Street, itself.

Council member Dr. Edward I. Gordon, also a member of the planning commission, said the hospital should “follow the procedure that everybody follows” regarding zoning requests.

A lot of the phone calls he has received from residents, Dr. Gordon said, are based on the fact “that you appear to be going forward without going through what is set in motion as the way things are done in the town and giving the wrong impression…that you're steamrolling. And they want you to be going through the planning commission, which is what people do, that you go through the planning commission process.”

Some people believe, he told her, “that you're bypassing the process. And I'm not saying that's true. That's what I'm hearing.”

Spates, following Dr. Gordon's comments, said, “the request needs to come to council to be referred which ever way council decides.” That is what is going to happen.

Responding to the description of citizen concerns, Dr. Eddleman said, “I assure you that we in no way were trying to go around the process.

“In the 900 High Street property that we purchased we have changed the locks on the doors, had some painting contractors come in to give us bids because, as you can imagine, the interior would need to be painted. And for budgeting purposes. And we've done nothing else,” Dr. Eddleman said of 900 High Street.

As for the 1104 High Street property, she told council, “that property was in considerable disarray, with ceiling tile falling down and insulation showing and some really bad odor issues inside the dwelling and in the wood, etc. So no matter what we did those issues needed to be addressed. I had absolutely no idea that by sanding the floors and painting the walls and doing the things that we've done there-I've shared those things with Gerry-that that was in violation of any expectations or any statute or rules or regulations. If we have violated that process, I formally apologize to council for doing so. It was certainly inadvertent. We had no plans to move forward without going through the process. We understood when we purchased both those properties that that would need to occur. We would have probably purchased those properties in any event, and obviously did. They're contiguous with other property owned by the hospital. It was just a sensible business thing to do. So I guess that's my apology to council. I certainly didn't mean to put any of you in a bad light or upset citizens unduly.”

At that point, Town Attorney, Donald C. Blessing, asked her if it had been determined whether a building permit “was necessary to do what you have done to this point?”

“I don't know that it was,” Dr. Eddleman answered.

Spates said he has looked into that question and with the “cosmetic” nature of the work, including replacing light fixtures, it was “borderline” on whether or not a building permit should have been obtained.

“I think, really, they probably should have gotten a building permit…” he said.

“So, we're okay?” asked Blessing.

“Yeah, I think we're okay,” Spates answered, saying Dr. Eddleman had invited the Town's building inspector to come up and look at the building. “We didn't have a (building) permit.”

In fact, all of Town Council was invited to inspect the two properties for themselves.

Council member Tommy Pairet said much of the citizen concerns communicated to him was the result of the work being done. “Seeing people coming and going and not knowing what was going on…what was actually transpiring in that house at the time,” Pairet said. “I think there was a lot of speculation as well as concerns to where they may possibly have not known and not knowing may have fed the fire, so to speak. With a number of phone calls that I have gotten on it concerned citizens were questioning whether or not you'd gone through the proper channels…But if no more's been done than painting and fixing up and cleaning up I don't really see where there's been any big massive undertaking of any type of transformation whatsoever. And I think that's what most people were kind of speculating was already starting to happen.”

Vice-Mayor Armstead D. Reid said the phone calls he'd received voiced the same concerns.

Dr. Gordon added “the idea got out that you were putting in an office. I don't know where that came from but it got out there. Everybody was sure that's what you were doing so seeing everything out there was you putting in an office without having gone through proper channels.”

And he said he came to the hospital's defense, telling callers “no, this wasn't occurring. I didn't know you didn't have a building permit but even so your intentions (weren't to bypass the process). The problem became one of everybody thinking you were doing this and not knowing one way or another and us not knowing anything…We had to play the game of 'what are you doing?' and we didn't know.”

The rumor “hit the streets and everybody was convinced. They saw a car, that's what you were doing,” Dr. Gordon said.

“Perception was reality,” Blessing added.

Council member Sally Thompson, whose Ward B includes High Street, said citizens are concerned about the encroachment by the hospital of High Street.

“It's the preservation of our community,” she said. “And the preservation of High Street.”

There is a fear, Ms. Thompson said, “that you're going to take over.”

Dr. Eddleman said, “I can understand that concern.”

But the concern is also beyond High Street, council member David E. Whitus said. “It goes on up The Avenues. But the real concern is the preservation of High Street. They don't want to see a business on High Street. The other concern is if we, the Town, let the hospital do that then here comes Longwood marching up High Street. It's all tied together. There's a fear that Longwood's going to march up High Street and destroy it…There's a group that's really concerned you're going to destroy High Street.”

Responding to those concerns, Dr. Eddleman said, “certainly in the seven years I've been here, and I think in years prior to that, the hospital has always tried to be a good neighbor. And we will continue to strive to be a good neighbor, while we meet all of the healthcare needs of all the citizens that look to us to have a state-of-the-art, high quality, progressive hospital and health care system. That those continue to be our overarching goals and our responsibilities. So I can assure you that being a good neighbor is on that list, as well, and we will do everything that we can to be a good neighbor but balancing all of those issues-how do you grow the hospital and move forward and preserve dignity and respect other people if you're always doing this kind of balance to meet all those needs?

“We'll continue,” Dr. Eddleman said, “to try to do that for sure.”

Town Council will discuss the issue further Wednesday night and likely decide then whether or not to forward the zoning request to the planning commission.