The NCH Healthcare System has cleared another hurdle in its plans to build a $150 million heart center, but the height of the building remains unclear.
Naples City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved adding language to the city’s utility zoning category to allow a “community hospital” as a conditional use. A second public hearing will take place next month.
If final approval is granted, NCH will need to submit an application to be rezoned into the Utilities District with details of how much of its 22-acre Downtown Baker Hospital it wishes to include.
At issue is the hospital’s plan to demolish the three-story Telford Education Center on the south side of the Baker campus at 350 Seventh St. N. and replace it with a proposed five-story heart center 75 feet from high.
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The Utilities District is not commercial zoning and therefore is not tied to the 42 foot height limit that was established for commercial buildings in 2000 by election referendum.
Allowing a hospital in the utility district as a conditional use would allow NCH to seek approval for the five-story, 75-foot-tall heart center. The application along with a detailed site plan would be reviewed by the city’s planning staff, was to be reviewed by the Planning Advisory Board, and ultimately presented to City Council for a final decision.
The nonprofit NCH is the largest hospital system in Collier County. Its leaders say a state-of-the-art heart center is needed to stay competitive, to attract top specialists and that it would save more lives.
Approximately 70% of patients requiring heart and stroke care live within 10 miles of the Baker campus. Research and training programs would be expanded.
NCH currently performs approximately 500 open-heart procedures per year with cardiac services located on the Baker campus. Another 4,200 cardiac catheterization procedures are performed.
What are the details?
NCH has been working with city officials for over a year on the heart center proposal.
The project has encountered roadblocks due to the 42-foot height limit for commercial buildings and outcry from some residents who say the city must adhere to the height limit. Others say that if the Heart Center is allowed 75 feet tall, NCH may one day want other buildings at a similar height.
The Baker Hospital itself is 93 feet tall, which was allowed with expansions before the height limit.
Another hurdle has been three zoning categories that encompass the 22 acres of the NCH campus due to the addition of ancillary medical buildings over the years that border residential areas.
Planning staff and the Planning Advisory Board have narrowly defined that a community hospital in the Public Services District should be locally run, independent and a not-for-profit charity, which applies to NCH.
Additionally, NCH, in any change to the site plan of a high-rise building, will have to show a need and it must be compatible with neighboring buildings, according to Erica Martin, the city’s senior planner.
Councilor Ray Christman said the NCH project had evolved over the months and he asked if NCH had ever submitted any draft site plans for rezoning and was told that had not happened.
An overarching question is how much square footage NCH would want in the utility district, which opens up the possibility for the hospital to pursue other high-rise buildings beyond the Heart Center, he said.
Christman said there had been communications that NCH wanted an acre in the utility district, another time he heard three acres and he heard it might be a larger tract.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” he said. “Many people have raised this issue with me.”
Paul Hiltz, president and CEO of NCH, has been offering for months to put in writing that the hospital only wants the five-story, 75-foot-tall heart center.
“We just want a building,” Hiltz said. “We can do that through zoning.”
Councilman Terry Hutchison asked what action the city might take if the community hospital’s designation changes to commercial use. City staff said the community hospital must provide a community benefit and a change to commercial use would trigger a code violation.
Councilman Mike McCabe said stipulations that the hospital must be independent, not-for-profit and charitable provide protection against the hospital being sold to for-profit hospital conglomerates.
What he described as “another safety valve” against unintended consequences is that the hospital and its buildings must provide a significant advantage and must be compatible with adjacent buildings.
This would not allow a new building to be taller than an adjacent building, he said.
“I believe what’s been accomplished here has done a very good job of making sure we’re going to be able to gain public benefit and at the same time make sure we haven’t opened the door to unintended consequences,” said McCabe.