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City OKs Hospital Growth—and Exceptions to Height, Density But Not Sign Rules

| September 21, 2010

Rising high. (© FlaglerLive)

Update, Nov. 2: The city granted all but the hospital’s sign request. “Our attorneys made it clear that if you make an exception for one you will basically void your sign ordinance when it comes to this issue,” City Manager Jim Landon told the Palm Coast City Council, which went along on a 3-2 vote, with Jon Netts, Mary DiStefano and Bill Lewis in the majority, Holsey Moorman and Frank meeker dissenting.

The Palm Coast City Council this morning granted Florida Hospital Flagler’s request to change its long-term land-use planning at its 100-acre campus on State Road 100, including permission to exceed height and density limits and, possibly, install large electronic sign at its main entrance, even though city code prohibits such signs.

On Aug. 18, the Palm Coast planning board approved a development master plan that would enable the hospital to double in size over many years, eventually adding a 120-foot tower and other buildings to accommodate 100 more beds and medical offices. The plan also currently conceives of a hotel and a restaurant on the hospital campus. But Hospital CEO David Ottati said those “may never occur.” The hospital is more likely to build medically related facilities there, he said. Nevertheless, council member Bill Lewis talked of the proposal as if it would eventually include those developments. When he asked Ottati about a restaurant directly, Otatti said the hospital would not go into the restaurant business: “It’s a place-holder today. Do I see a restaurant coming in? Maybe, maybe not.”

The master plan projects development over a 20-year range. The most immediate changes you’re likely to see are a 200-space parking lot, a sizeable retention pond to the north of the campus, near I-95, and trails for public use that’ll be connected to 8-foot-wide sidewalks along State Road 100. The first major structural change to the hospital itself would be the addition of a 30,000 square-foot building to expand medical offices. Ottati said he hopes “to have a building built in the next two years.” The rest of it would be many years out.

The hospital is also stepping up its recruitment of physicians.

The hospital’s 310,000 square feet of existing medical space stretch over 30 acres of the hospital property. Future development would take in an additional 40 acres, eventually adding 179,000 square feet of hospital and medical-office space on tracts immediately abutting SR100 and a tract northeast of the existing structure. Drawings include plans for a 16,000 square-foot restaurant and 75,000 square foot hotel, also along SR100, but more as placeholders.

Mayor Jon Netts was curious about the new plan’s fit as an extension of the Town Center concept as a pedestrian-friendly zone. It will be pedestrian friendly, the city administration told him, but only as long as people stay on the hospital campus. He was also told that the additional commercial space at the hospital would be taxable.

The more contentious issue, however, was the electronic sign the hospital wants to install at its main entrance on State Road 100 (a rather large, tall sign that would rise 18 feet). City code forbids those signs–except for schools, which, by law, don’t have to comply with local ordinance. They only comply with their own rules. City staff recommended against granting that request and the planning board went along, denying that request.

Council member Mary DiStefano liked the hospital’s idea regarding the projected sign: a sign that would provide useful information. But the administration warned against opening the door to electronic signs that, if allowed, might lead to “Whiskey, $10″ type flashing, as City Manager Jim Landon described a possibility at the ABC liquor store going up at Palm Coast Parkway and Old Kings Road, a development the manager reviles. “You can regulate size and some of the other features that go along with it. The message itself, you can’t regulate,” Landon said. The flashing, the scrolling could, possibly, be regulated from a code standpoint, but from a practical standpoint, sending messages to businesses to change their formats would be problematic, Landon said.

If the flashing signs are allowed, the administration warned, billboards could go electronic next. Still, the hospital was intent on battling for its sign.

Hospital CEO David Ottati himself made an extended pitch for the sign, professing disbelief that in the 21st century, an electronic sign of the type the hospital was proposing would not be allowed. “We can control the aesthetic, the content, the manner in which the content is changed,” he said. Transitions between messages could be “faded” to avoid distractions for passers-by, and yes, messages would include alerts of flu shots (a possibility one council member called “tacky”).

Lewis wasn’t moved. “You’re just one of the many businesses out there that want what you do,” Lewis said. “So the sign, to me, has some drawbacks, one being this is not a pedestrian community, this is a very motorized community,” meaning motorists won’t really take advantage of it. Legally, Lewis said, it’s too risky to go with the sign, as it would open the way to others like it.

Council member Frank Meeker didn’t agree. He wanted the city administration to “go and find a way” to make the electronic sign work, not to prohibit it up front.

Netts was opposed to anything that would lead to every business having “blinking, flashing, scrolling” signs.

In the end, and in a victory for Ottati and the hospital, the council agreed in a 4-1 vote to delay a final decision on the sign by directing its legal and administrative staff to perhaps find a way to accommodate the electronic sign as long as it’s not overly flashy. Meeker was in dissent.

In August, the hospital requested essentially three changes from city regulations, including the flashing sign.

The hospital was looking to exceed the 100-foot height limitation for its future tower by 20 feet. The planning board granted the waiver. The hospital was also looking to change the density on the site. At the moment, 40 percent of any given tract’s area may be built up. The hospital wants to change that to 50 percent on four separate tracts, and to 75 percent on the tract that includes its principal structure. The planning board granted those requests, too.

Regarding the height issue, City Council member Holsey Moorman was concerned about the flight path of planes heading for the nearby airport. Not an issue, the administration told him: the flight paths have been studied and the height issue deemed not an issue. Council member Bill Lewis raised the more pointed issue: If someone else wanted to come build a hotel, 120 feet, they’d have the same approval as the hospital?” Not so, the administration said: the hospital isn’t setting a precedent, at least not legally, should a future developer request the same exception. A hospital, the manager said, is a “unique” development. The answer to Lewis’ question was not convincing: an exception is by definition a crack in the rules. (In the Town Center area, the maximum height allowed is 100 feet.) And a future council could always change the height limit.

Mike Beadle, the city’s fire chief, said his department’s current capabilities top off with a ladder truck that goes up to 100 feet. He would have to analyze the hospital’s development plans to more precisely know whether and how the fire department would deal with a fire at heights exceeding 100 feet.

Future developments aside, two large tracts adding up to a little over 20 percent of the campus—a long sliver running to the north and west of the property, and a larger tract to its east, all the way up to the interstate—would remain conservation land. Any future development would maintain 35-foot buffers along 100 and 25-foot buffers along I-95.

The hospital opened in September 2002 as a successor to the Bunnell Community Hospital, which Florida Hospital acquired in 2000. The hospital is licensed for 99 beds. To add beds, it must get the approval of the Agency for Health Care Administration, a state regulatory agency.

Since 2002, Ottati told the council Tuesday morning, the hospital has invested $130 million in infrastructure and equipment. The emergency room’s capacity went from 14 beds in 2002 to to 31 today. The hospital invested $4 million in the last 18 months in “interventional cardiology.” Some 38,000 people visit the emergency room every year, 6,000 people are admitted and 5,000 are operated on annually. The hospital employed 350 people employed in 2002. Employment is now nearing 900. “We’re consistently growing,” Ottati said.

Does the hospital corporation pay taxes, council members asked? Ottati was non-committal, though in fact the hospital, being non-profit, is exempt from paying taxes. What that means is that while it is part of the Town Center development (and community redevelopment zone), it does not contribute direct taxes to the city, though its employees and services obviously generate considerable economic activity.

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4 Responses for “City OKs Hospital Growth—and Exceptions to Height, Density But Not Sign Rules”

  1. Money says:

    They will get their sign because money walks and BS talks.

    Now for the rest of you citizens and businesses don’t get any ideas about erecting signs.

  2. JR says:

    There is a big difference between a hospital, a non-profit one at that, and a commercial business. If the City feels that they would be setting a bad precedence, shame on them. In the future, they would be the ones responsible for granting other exemptions–as they are now, so whats the big deal? They are speculating on their own inability to do the right thing.

  3. Liana G says:

    City code forbids those signs–except for schools, which, by law, don’t have to comply with local ordinance.

    Schools are NFP and so is this hospital. So let’s make accommodations for NFP organizations and get some quality jobs in here. Besides shouldn’t a hospital sign be VERY visible so people don’t miss it especially in cases of emergency?

    Maybe the city can add a stipulation that employees /all new hires must reside in Flagler county. If you build it they will come right?

  4. silent says:

    No to electronic signs

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