What’s been described as “probably the largest single project York Hospital has undertaken on its campus in the last 35 years” is currently before the local Planning Board, as the hospital and Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital Network are partnering to propose a 20-bed acute rehabilitation center there.
The 20,000-square-foot addition to the hospital would be built to the east of the Strater Wing, said hospital President and CEO Jud Knox. It would house patients needing acute care, such as orthopedic, neurological and cardiac rehabilitation.
Northeast Rehabilitation currently has an acute care facility at Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but “demand for services there is really high. They came to us and asked us if we would be willing to work with them, recognizing the high demand and the backlog of need for these services,” said Knox.
This would be the first Northeast Rehab facility in Maine; the network currently has facilities in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. The York Hospital unit would be the only acute rehab facility south of Portland, said Knox. It is expected to service York County and the entire Seacoast area, he said.
“I see this as a way to serve our community and southern York County,” he said. “The better we can meet those needs, the stronger the organization will be. The motivation is to serve.”
Knox said if everything goes as planned, the goal is to break ground this fall. But before that can happen, there are a number of local and state hurdles that have to be cleared. In York, two articles are expected to be on the ballot in May directly related to the project. Knox makes clear that all parties are aware that these measures need to pass in order for the project to proceed.
The hospital will need to use a portion of the end of Williams Avenue for the new, single-story wing. Williams Avenue currently ends at the back end of a hospital parking lot. The hospital is asking selectmen to support a ballot measure to discontinue that last 200 feet of Williams Avenue and transfer ownership to the hospital.
There was a good deal of discussion about this at Monday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting. A key sticking point for selectman Robert Palmer was some sort of commitment from the hospital board of trustees that in the future they would allow parking on a narrow strip of hospital land next door to the fire station. Knox said he could not make that commitment, but would bring the matter back to his board.
Knox was clearly taken aback at Palmer’s insistence, because in negotiations with selectmen Todd Frederick and Mike Estes, he understood that the parking would be a discreet issue for a separate time. But Palmer said he wants even a broad understanding in writing from the hospital. He said the town needs to make clear to downtown business owners as the village rehabilitation gets underway that it is working to secure more parking.
In the end, the selectmen agreed to move that Williams Avenue discontinuance to public hearing and ultimately to the ballot. The public hearing is set for Feb. 26.
An additional zoning measure seeking an expansion of the hospital overlay district will also need to be on the ballot. The hospital proposes razing the Greenwood House — the ranch house next to the current helicopter pad. A portion of Williams Avenue would be used for the new wing, and a portion along with the additional Greenwood House land would be used to create an access road into the hospital campus. Neither parcel is in the overlay district, said Knox, and both would need to be in order for the project to go forward.
The expansion of the overlay district is a Planning Board-sponsored measure. The board will hold a public hearing on the measure on Feb. 22 and then the Board of Selectmen will hold its own hearing Feb. 26.
When the Planning Board meets Feb. 22, members will also officially begin review of the project itself. The hospital’s first appearance is very preliminary, called the “sketch plan” phase, gauging board concerns so that changes can be made before the next phase, if necessary. Knox said the cost of the project is still unknown at this point as the plans could change during the Planning Board review process.
In his application letter to the board, Eric Weinrieb of Altus Engineering in Portsmouth said all partners understand that the project hinges on voter approval of those measures. “It is fully understood that the hospital is proceeding with the risk that should the initiative(s) fail, the project cannot move forward.” He suggested the board make voter acceptance a condition of approval.
Finally, Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital Network has filed a certificate of need with the state Department of Health and Human Services — a required step before the unit can open its doors. Knox said he believes “the need for acute rehab services are so great, it gives me cause for optimism.” He said the state should rule on the matter by May.
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