Neighbors say ‘no’ to hospital project
Neighbors to Sonoma Valley Hospital came out swinging during Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting, letting the hospital know that its proposal to develop the south lot on Fourth Street West would be met with a struggle.
“… I don’t want to discuss the details of this project, I want it flat out denied, period,” said Bob Gossett, who lives on Hayes Street. “We do not want this here. We will fight this thing and I promise you, it will be ugly.”
The hospital has held a lease on the 4-acre parcel on Fourth Street West between MacArthur and Bettencourt streets for several years, which lately has been used a parking lot zoned for 81 spaces as well as a construction staging site for the hospital’s new wing. Last spring, the Wiseman Company, a Fairfield-based development firm that specializes in office complexes, came forward with a proposal for the land. It involved a 31,360-square-foot medical office building to house physicians’ offices and some ancillary medical services such as laboratory and imaging. It also included a wellness center with a 21,250-square-foot gym and therapy pools that would be managed by Parkpoint Health Clubs and allow the hospital to expand its health services.
“It’s the working together of medical professionals and exercise professionals for a continuum of care,” said Bill Buchannan, owner of Parkpoint Health Clubs.
Under the $20-million deal, the hospital would be able to buy land, which it would lease to the Wiseman Company and Parkpoint to develop. But the project will require an amendment to the city’s general plan, which brought all the parties involved to the planning commission Thursday for a study session. The land is currently zoned residential, and could contain as many as 32 housing units. Rob Gjestland, senior planner with the city’s planning department, said the hospital could seek medical services zoning for the offices, but that could not cover the gym, which is “commercial in nature.”
“You could look at rezoning it commercial but that opens it up to many, many, many uses. We don’t see that as a good alternative,” Gjestland said. He explained that Sonoma’s City Council would ultimately have authority over any general plan amendments.
The neighbors are hoping the project doesn’t make it that far. Many said they felt hospital officials were being deceptive by telling the Sonoma Planning Commission it held “several” meetings with the neighbors regarding the project, with positive results.
“They (the hospital) don’t have a report with us. They are not notifying all of us like they are trying to make you believe,” Michele Jourdain told the commission.
Gail Rinaldi said just one meeting with the neighbors had occurred to date. “They said they’d get back to us in two to three weeks, that was in August,” she added.
Not one neighbor voiced support for the project during more than 30 minutes of public comment, with most citing concerns over parking, traffic and losing the residential nature of the neighborhood. The hospital did not immediately respond to the Index-Tribune’s inquiry about to discrepancy in the number of neighborhood meetings that occurred.
Hospital officials contend the medical office space is critical to helping the hospital become financially viable since doctors today want their offices included in a medical campus setting by the hospital. The offices would improve the recruitment and retention of physicians in the Valley, they said.
“They’re not interested in a building four blocks away, let alone three miles away. They want to be next to the hospital,” hospital CEO Kelly Mather lamented.
Sonoma Valley Health Care District board Chair Peter Hohorst added that the larger Sonoma community voted multiple times to keep the hospital afloat with parcel taxes and general obligation bonds. “Basically, they were voting to make sure we had an emergency room in Sonoma. They voted for that over 70 percent, three different times in recent years,” he said, adding that with that support comes an understanding that the hospital will seek a way to become fiscally solvent on its own.
“We have been instructed by the voters to maintain the hospital in a viable way, even in a residential neighborhood,” Hohorst said.
The commissioners had mixed reactions to the proposal, which was only listed as a study session so no action was taken on the project. Commissioner Matt Howarth said he had “strong issues” after the neighbors concerns on the project. Commissioner Bill Willers said, “We have a very nice medical office building and wellness center that hasn’t done enough to be compatible with this property.”
Only Commissioner Gary Edwards expressed some semblance of support for the project, saying, “It seems like this particular property seems to be a reasonable spot for this.”
Hospital officials agreed to go back to the drawing board with the proposal in attempts to find common ground with the neighbors. “We need to do some homework,” Hohorst said. “We need to come back with the neighbors with us next time.”