Swedish Cherry Hill appeal hearing moves forward

The third meeting in the appeal of Swedish Health Services’ proposed Major Institution Master Plan (MIMP) update for the Swedish Cherry Hill campus took place this morning, and it was the first chance for the Council members to ask questions. As such, we got a few hints on how they are approaching the issues.

Today’s meeting was structured as a briefing and Q&A between Ketil Freeman, a city attorney on Council’s central staff, and the Council members, to outline the issues involved and the Council’s options in how to adjudicate them. Freeman reiterated up-front that as a quasi-judicial matter being appealed, the Council may only rely upon facts and evidence in the record to-date. A couple of requests to supplement the record are pending, but otherwise Freeman spent much of the time informing the Council members as to what information was in the record and relevant to each issue.

According to Freeman’s accompanying memo, there are two major issues and four lesser issues raised in the appeals that the Council needs to consider. The two major issues:

  1. Swedish has asked for relaxed height restrictions on buildings on the campus, allowing them to build structures as tall as 150 of 160 feet along some edges of campus. The neighbors (Swedish campus is in the middle of a residential neighborhood) object loudly to the increased heights.
  2. Increased traffic and insufficient remediation efforts. Under the current master plan, Swedish is required to get the number of single-occupancy-vehicles (SOVs) bringing people to and from the facility down to a specific fraction of the entire traffic, and today they have missed the goal substantially. Campus expansion would bring even more traffic, and neighbors have rightfully criticized Swedish’s ability to mitigate that given their poor track record in hitting the existing (easier) targets.

The four lesser issues are:

  1. The master plan defines Swedish’s need to conduct their business, and the expansion in the proposed update is dependent upon a rational justification of Swedish’s changes in needs moving forward. But Swedish has sold 40% of the campus to Sabey, a development company, who has built on the site and leases building space both back to Swedish and to other tenants. At issue is whether those other tenants provide “functionally integrated or substantially related” activities, the standard for being included in Swedish’s defined “need.” Or conversely, if they could be moved to other locations without undue impairment of Swedish’s operations, then perhaps the need to expand is not as great as the proposed master plan suggests. Swedish has another campus nearby, on First Hill, which is an area zoned for more substantially commercial development.
  2. Noise. Neighbors already complain that truck deliveries in the middle of the night create substantial noise which Swedish has not mitigated. Further expansion would likely increase the noise level for the surrounding residential community.
  3. Stormwater runoff and drainage. Apparently there are already flooding issues in the area, and further development could make that worse. Critics of the proposed plan argue that this was not adequately considered both by Swedish and by the hearing examiner.
  4. Greenway. There is an early plan for a greenway along 18th Avenue, one side of the campus. Critics argue that the master plan does not consider the effects of expansion on that greenway plan.

The Council and Freeman discussed all six issues briefly, though the largest share of the conversation was devoted to major issue #2: the traffic situation. If Council members were looking for a reason to rule against Swedish, this was clearly their favorite (though it wasn’t clear any of them were). O’Brien seemed particularly distressed by Swedish’s failure to meet the existing SOV goal and that it hadn’t been enforced over the years. He and Johnson agreed to work on legislation to address enforcement, perhaps requiring the city planning department to deliver an annual “scorecard” on how well organizations with this type of transportation goal are meeting it. Herbold took it further, wanting to know what kind of mechanism could be used to create the conditions under which the SOV goal could be met, such as requiring Swedish to pay into a fund to pay for additional transit. O’Brien supported that idea and observed that currently the SOV goals are tied to construction milestones, but he would prefer that Swedish be held to making SOV goals independent of their permitting and construction timeline over the next 25 years (the lifetime of the new MIMP).

The Council sent Freeman off to research a handful of issues, and will reconvene on April 5, at which point Johnson will likely push for a vote on a recommendation to the full Council.