SARATOGA SPRINGS -- Neighbors are continuing to fight against Saratoga Hospital's efforts to build a medical office building next to their West Side neighborhood, a proposal hospital officials say is needed for medical and financial reasons as the hospital grows.
The City Council heard from both sides at a public hearing Tuesday on proposed zoning map amendments, one of which would rezone 16 acres of vacant land at Myrtle and Morgan streets, about a block from the hospital, from residential to medical office. The council's decision is still months away.
The hospital has been seeking permission to build a roughly 80,000-square-foot, three-story office building since at least 2014, with an earlier effort blocked after two City Council members, including then-mayor Joanne Yepsen, recused themselves from voting because of potential conflicts.
People who live in the Birch Run neighborhood and other nearby residential areas say the office building would harm the character of the neighborhood and potentially decrease their property values. Some say the hospital's interest is driven more by increasing its Medicare reimbursements than medical need. Current Medicare policy provides higher reimbursements for patient visits when doctors are in hospital-owned offices within 250 yards of a hospital.
"It was only when Medicare changed its rules that the hospital decided it needed to have all its doctors in one location," said neighbor Alice Smith.
"If this zoning is passed, it will have irreversible negative impacts on the residents who live there," said Claudia Braymer, an attorney representing some of the concerned residents, urging council members to put themselves in the residents' shoes.
Hospital officials acknowledge there's a financial benefit, but said the main motive is to improve patient care as the hospital continues to grow. Surgeons and other specialists are now located in rented offices which in many cases are near the hospital but not hospital-owned; the new building could move them closer.
While five people spoke against the plan, there were as many defenders of the project speaking at the hour-long hearing.
Michael J. Toohey, a local attorney and vice chairman of the hospital's board of trustees, said the hospital has been at its Church Street location for more than 100 years, and has consistently grown throughout that time. Since the hospital is a non-profit operation, he said any additional revenue will go back into providing medical care.
"The expansion is not merely to make revenue, it is to have doctors closer to the hospital," Toohey said. "It will be for the benefit of all the residents of Saratoga for the next ten years, and ten times ten years."
Hospital President and CEO Angelo Calbone said that community hospitals across the country are "struggling for their lives" because of government funding cuts, and Saratoga Hospital is lucky to have stable finances. "The health care environment is the most challenging it has been in my career," he said. "This [office project] is the product of a lot of good planning."
Logan Smith, who lives on Seward Street, said street drainage issues need to be addressed and sidewalks should be constructed to improve pedestrian safety as part of any construction, but he doesn't oppose the project. "In the greater scheme of things, it is my hope that the project goes through," he said.
About 40 neighbors and their supporters attended Tuesday's hearing. The council will hold a second public hearing on the proposed zoning map changes at its Dec. 17 meeting. The council won't receive a written draft of the actual zoning changes until January. After further hearings, City Attorney Vincent DeLeonardis said, a vote isn't likely until May.
A comprehensive land use plan adopted by the city in 2015 recommended the zoning of the parcel be changed, though neighbors say that happened largely without their knowledge. The current review is bringing the city's zoning into compliance with the recommendations in that plan, DeLeonardis said.