A crowd of about 75 concerned Rhinebeck residents gathered in Village Hall Sept. 19 for what they thought would be a public hearing on Northern Dutchess Hospital’s expansion plan.
At issue was whether the Zoning Board of Appeals would grant a seven-foot height variance on the proposed new multimillion dollar wing at the hospital.
Since public hearings on the overall expansion plans have been closed, the height variance application before the ZBA became the last stand for those troubled by the project.
But as the meeting opened, ZBA chair Francois Weigel announced that Kirchhoff Medical Properties, the project developer, had removed the project from the agenda an hour earlier in order to have more time to “sort through their options.”
The announcement was met with audible dismay.
“Deliberate tactic!” one person called out amid the hubbub.
The project includes expanded parking and a three-story addition to the hospital that would require the seven-foot height variance. The addition would include two floors of new operating rooms and patient rooms along with ground-level offices for doctors.
Residents pushed the board to allow them to express their views on the project anyway, but the board refused, saying the project was no longer on the agenda and might not be on the agenda again, so therefore no statements could be accepted.
“It’s like having a trial without a defendant; it’s a non-entity,” ZBA member Rachael Cavell explained.
“Why don’t we give them a deadline?” one woman asked. Others questioned how many times an applicant can cancel “at the last minute.”
The attorney for the village, Richard Olson, explained that the board does not have the power in this type of application to set a deadline and that applicants, if they pay the application filing fee and other fees, can get on an agenda and then cancel any time they wish.
“So, they’re in charge?” someone called out.
“When they were before the planning board, they were telling us that they needed to move forward quickly, so why they pulled it tonight, we don’t know,” Olson said.
David Ping, a spokesperson for Health Quest, which owns the hospital, told The Observer after the meeting that the developer pulled back because “it became clear that the discussion on Thursday night was not going to be about the height variance, and so we decided to take it off the agenda for that night. Our plan will be to look at the plans to see if there is a way to reduce the height variance further if possible.”
He noted, however, that in the current plans, the height of the new addition would be the same as the hospital’s Rosenthal Pavilion, which was given a seven-foot height variance when it was constructed in 2005.
Ping also said the developer intends to be on the next ZBA meeting agenda.
Ping explained that the hospital needs the variance partly because plans call for a façade that will hide air conditioning units and other mechanical structures on the roof. The overall construction cost of the expansion, he added, is now estimated at $43 million.
At the meeting, Cate Long, who lives on property adjacent to the hospital, presented the ZBA with 440 signatures collected by her group, “Save Rhinebeck’s green space.” The petition was the result of concerns by local residents that the hospital’s planned parking expansion would eliminate the mature tree and lawns that front Route 9.
“All of us want to see an expanded and better facility, but the plans as they are now are not appropriate for the site, they’re not appropriate for our village, they’re not appropriate for the historic district the hospital is located in,” Long said.
Ping told The Observer that assertions that the green space in front of the hospital will not be kept are not accurate.
According to the plans, he said, 70 percent of the green space in front –1.23 acres out of the existing 1.79 acres– will not be affected. 41 trees will be removed, he added, but 22 “significant” trees are being kept and “those great big spruce trees right at the corner of the property on Montgomery and Route 9, all of those are being retained.”
For those who are curious, painted lines and stakes were put in on the hospital lawn last week to show where the expanded parking lot would be.
Ping said the hospital plans on planting 78 trees and 239 shrubs along Route 9 and Montgomery Street in order to screen the complex from the street and will also put in sidewalks along both streets.
Update: The Sept. 25 print edition of this story misspelled Mr. Ping’s name as King.