The Woodruff Town Board’s decision last week to send a request back to Oneida County’s Zoning Department for a conditional use permit rather than a requested administrative review permit will force an indefinite delay in Howard Young Medical Center’s plans to construct a helicopter hangar on the facility’s campus.
Ministry Health Care has already completed some ground preparation work at the construction site for the proposed hangar located on the west side of the medical center campus.
At Tuesday’s town board meeting, Woodruff supervisors were set to discuss approval of an administrative review permit for the project and if it had been approved construction could have begun soon.
The board, however, changed direction and decided to return the matter to Oneida County officials and requested Ministry officials seek a conditional use permit for the project so concerns could be addressed so the project could be allowed to move forward. That process could take several more months, thus delaying the hangar’s completion which was expected to be done in about three months.
“Our preference is to get started sooner rather than later, but again we understand and appreciate there is a need for more time to satisfy this need for further information,” Laurie Oungst, Ministry Northern Region Vice President of Operations, said. “We do have the disadvantage of working on this project through our winter months so we do have concerns in the increase in costs due to this delay, but we want the public as a whole to be confident that this is the right investment for this community and the surrounding community we serve.”
Spirit-2 is currently based at the Rhinelander/Oneida County Airport. Ministry rents the hangar, but they found out earlier this year the hangar owner put up for sale. Soon after that, Ministry leaders began discussing alternative site options to house the aircraft. After considering all options, including the areas Spirit-2 is frequently utilized, it was decided HYMC in Woodruff was the best site to build the new hangar.
According to Oungst, the building itself will be 120 by 70 feet and will have the space to house four ambulances and two helicopters. There will be mechanic space, a pilot’s office and sleeping room as well as a bathroom and medical supply room.
Within the last year HYMC completed moving the medical center’s helipad from the east side of the facility to the west side which is directly across from and much closer to the hospital’s emergency department.
“Where the helipad is located now saves us up to 10 minutes,” Oungst said. “So the minutes start to add up.”
“Trauma has a golden hour from the time of the injury to the trauma center,” Charlie Kotke, Ministry’s Regional Manager of Transportation Services, said. “Cardiac serves – if you are truly having a heart attack they want you into the trauma center within 90 minutes, with stroke, three hours from onset and if you are coming from say Boulder Junction you’ve got an hour already just in getting here.”
Why not at Lakeland Airport?
Some property owners who live near the site of the proposed helicopter hangar have asked why the new hangar could not be constructed at Lakeland Airport.
“Certainly we could have them respond by car from the hospital to the [Lakeland] airport, get the aircraft out of the hangar, but we will have already wasted the more than 10 minutes we gained from moving the helipad,” Kotke said. “And again those minutes could be the difference between life or death.
“In short, it’s a distance issue,” Oungst said. “It’s an issue of best utilization of flight personnel allowing them to continue work, develop their skills, continue to have job satisfaction by being on site [at the hospital] and be able to respond on-site at any given moment.”
“If we are flying between 300 to 400 patients a year and we have 12 staff members, that really limits their patient contact if we have them sitting in a hangar [at Lakeland Airport] and not being able to be on-site at the hospital,” Kotke said. “If the hangar’s at the hospital they get to care for patients in the ICU, they get to care for patients in the ER and that allows them to stay current with their skills. That would be very difficult to do if they were sitting in an airport hangar for 12 hours and away from the hospital.”
Increased number of flights
Oungst and Kotke acknowledge locating the hangar at HYMC will mean an increase in flights to and from that facility.
“We’ve been able to determine that we average between 300 to 400 flights a year,” Kotke said. “But that averages out to only about one a day, but some days there will be more than others. Then there’s days like in October there are weather reasons such as fog, where we can’t fly as often.”
According to information provided by Oungst and Kotke, 78 patients were served by Spirit-2 air transportation in fiscal year 2012, far fewer than the 300 to 400 patients they could serve with the hangar located at HYMC.
Oungst said some neighbors have expressed concerns over some trees that have been removed on the HYMC campus to make room for the project.
“We want to make this helipad as safe as possible and having it approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will mean we would see a reduction in any of the safety issues,” Oungst said.
According to Oungst, Ministry held two information meetings with the hospital’s neighbors before they moved ahead with the project.
Todd Albano, who lives within a few hundred feet of HYMC, spoke against the hangar project at the town meeting last week. He said Ministry has been saying they want to work with the hospital’s neighbors, but their actions don’t show it.
“They had two of these so-called informational meetings and I never received a notice, not a word,” Albano said. “I live so close that I could throw a rock at the building, but I never heard a word about this project and about their moving the helipad from the east side of the hospital to the west side.”
Albano also said that since the helipad was moved he has seen a dramatic change in how he’s impacted.
“Before it was moved I could barely hear a thing when they flew in and out,” Albano said. “Now it’s dramatically different. It’s a window-shaking experience. The windows of my house literally shake and rattle now when that helicopter goes in or out day or night the amount of noise dramatically has increased. Just think what it’s going to be like if they have the hangar there and the flights increase by six or seven times.”
Albano said property values in the town will also be adversely affected by the project.
“Those who live near the hospital will see their property values goes down and because of that other property owners elsewhere in the town will have to pay more in taxes to make up the difference,” Albano said. “Their actions don’t follow their words.”
Ministry officials said they are trying very hard to work with the hospital’s neighbors over their concerns
“We appreciate the neighbors that border the HYMC campus will be impacted by this development, but our responsibility to the community is to make sure that we are addressing their needs and so this enhancement, this advancement really helps us support the needs of our broader community, our broader neighborhood, if you will, and is really a decision aimed toward the broader good,” Oungst said. “We accept that there are unanswered questions and some people have a need for more information and we are open and receptive to having those conversations to satisfy those needs.”
“As far as the time frame, we’ll know more about that after we meet with Karl Jennrich [Oneida County Planning and Zoning Department Director] on Tuesday.”
Joe VanDeLaarschot may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.