By Jim Melican, GSAC Board Member
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On Wednesday, December 13 the City’s Planning Advisory Board (PAB) conducted a second hearing on NCH’s proposed Heart, Vascular and Stroke Institute, at which it narrowly approved NCH’s plans but with reservations. The PAB’s role is to hear evidence and then make a non-binding recommendation to the City Council on whether to approve the project. The hearing lasted for nine and a half hours, and a clear majority of the residents who spoke in the public comment phase of the hearing advocated an affirmative recommendation.

However, the PAB’s votes on the three specific resolutions before it seemed to convey a mixed message. By a 4-3 vote the PAB voted to recommend approval of NCH’s bid that the Institute qualify for inclusion within the newly created public service district designation, thereby seemingly indicating that it approved of the 87 foot building to be built immediately adjacent to the NCH Baker Hospital. But by a similar 4-3 vote it decided that NCH had not demonstrated the need for a 40 foot parking garage to be built on the south side of the existing surface lot because the public service sector’s default definition only allows for 30 foot structures. NCH has previously declared that the parking garage is a necessity and an intrinsic component of its proposal. If a garage were not necessary, NCH would not be committed to spending a projected $17 million to build it. And If NCH is required as a condition of Council approval to reduce the height of the garage by ten feet (from four decks to three) it will lose 100 critically needed parking spaces. Its position is that parking adjacent to the Hospital is already inadequate during daylight hours and that in coming years, given the projected growth in our section of Collier County and the fact that, with medical advances, more non-invasive outpatient care is probable, skimping on parking would create an insuperable problem in the future.

The battle now moves to the City Council, where a critical hearing is scheduled for Thursday, January 18. Although one of the PAB members stated that the hundreds of e-mails which he and other members received were running 95-5 in favor of the Hospital’s proposal, it now appears evident that the crux of the Council hearing is likely to revolve around the parking issue. The opponents of the project have seized on that and are using it to urge that the Institute not be built at the downtown Naples location but rather on NCH’s North Campus on Immokalee Road in the County. All of the medical experts whom the Hospital employs or has retained have testified that 70% to 75% of NCH’s heart and stroke patients reside within 5 miles of the downtown location and that, in a medical emergency, even a few minutes delay in receiving medical intervention might well be fatal.

Readers should not be lulled into concluding that, in view of the PAB’s recommendation, the ultimate approval of the Institute is finally a done deal. The City Council is the final arbiter and it is not bound to adhere to the PAB’s recommendations. GSAC would, therefore, again stress the importance of residents making their views known to the individual Council members well in advance of the January 18 meeting (so that they are included in the public record). Two of the three announced mayoral candidates, specifically Gary Price and Ted Blankenship, have already declared their support for the project. To date, Mayor Heitmann has not yet taken a position.