Lake Norman & Mooresville

Hospital concerns neighbors

Huntersville staff, officials and residents are concerned about the traffic impact that a proposed psychiatric hospital at N.C. 115 and Verhoeff Drive will have.

Many residents also say they don't think the project's current buffer between the 17.35-acre property and the Monteith Place neighborhood is sufficient.

Commissioners will hold a public hearing on the property's rezoning from Neighborhood Residential to Campus Institutional Conditional District on Jan. 17.

Carolinas HealthCare officials requested that a Jan. 3 public hearing be held open until Jan. 17 to give them time to address all of town staff's concerns and questions about the project.

The property is the former site of the Huntersville Oaks Nursing Home, which operated from 1981 to 2007.

That nursing home was rebuilt in 2007 on a nearby site and the old building was torn down in 2009.

At the Jan 3 public hearing, town staff described the three phases of project to a packed town-hall meeting of about 50 attendees, many of whom were representatives from Carolinas HealthCare and the planning board.

During phase one, which is expected to be completed by July 2013, Carolinas HealthCare System would build a 65,000-square-foot inpatient facility with 66 beds and an attached 10,000-square-foot medical office building.

Within five years, the organization wants to add 45,000 square feet as a second story and 44 beds to the inpatient hospital and another 10,000-square-feet of office space.

In 10 years or more, CHS wants to build a 30,000-square-foot medical office on the site for a health-care related use.

Town staff cited several unsettled problems with CHS's plans, including an as-yet-to-be-completed traffic impact analysis from the N.C. Department of Transportation and insufficient buffers between the property and Monteith Place.

The town's current zoning ordinance calls for an 80-foot buffer between properties that are zoned differently.

CHS has asked for the town to lower that requirement on all sides of the property, including lowering the buffer with Monteith Place to 40 feet in some areas.

Peete noted that CHS has offered to compensate for the decreased buffer length with more vegetation, a wall or another solution.

"That is not a very far distance from this type of facility and children," said Commissioner Charles Guignard.

Mary Beth Kuzmanovich, vice president of CHS, said that inpatient clients would remain within the facility's care even when they went outside because they would be contained in three interior courtyards at the center of the building.

"Our first priority in this facility is to provide safety and care," she said. "We want to make sure they're outside safely but not in a situation where they can leave the facility."

She also noted that all patients coming to the facility - whether for inpatient or outpatient care - would be planned admissions.

Kuzmanovich said this in an effort to emphasize that patient arrivals and departures will be scheduled. They will not be coming on a walk-in basis. .

In response to a question from Commissioner Ron Julian, Kuzmanovich told the board that clients would have behavioral issues only, not substance-abuse or sexual disorders.

Ben Coggins, a member of the homeowner's association at Monteith Place, asked the board what it would take for the project to be rejected.

He noted that the facility would be built within a 2-mile radius of six schools.

"Why is this being built here? What's wrong with this facility going somewhere else?" he said. "Our neighborhood safety is our number one priority."

Huntersville principal planner David Peete emphasized that just because CHS has received a certificate of need from the state, that doesn't mean the hospital will definitely be approved at the 17.35-acre property.

"A lot of people think this is a foregone conclusion, and it's absolutely not," he said. "Those beds were assigned in a general way to the Huntersville area, not this particular parcel. We're not skipping over the review process."

Coggins also voiced frustration over the number of exemptions that CHS is seeking from the town's planning ordinance, including those related to the town's tree, parking and buffer ordinances.

"It seems like they're trying to facilitate what they want, where they want it," said Coggins.

Carolinas HealthCare System announced in April its plans to build the hospital. Last fall, it received the certificate of need from the state for 66 psychiatric beds, which was required to move forward with its plans.

"Almost every family or extended family is impacted in some way by mental health disorders," said Dennis Phillips, executive vice president of CHS's metro group, said last summer. "There's an urgent need for inpatient medical services."

Between 2010 and 2020, the number of people seeking inpatient psychiatric services nationally is expected to rise by 7 percent - from 2 million to just under 2.2 million, according to Carolinas HealthCare officials.

Should Huntersville commissioners close the public hearing after Jan. 17, the rezoning proposal will go to the planning board on Jan. 24, said Peete.

After that, the proposal could come back to the town board as early as Feb. 6 for approval.

From there, CHS will begin submitting its construction drawings for approval.