A conditional use permit application submitted by the Howard Young Medical Center to the town of Woodruff was the main agenda item for the latest meeting of the Woodruff town board.
The application centered around the hospital wanting to establish a base for Spirit Air, moving the helicopter, flight crews and support staff from Rhinelander to Minocqua.
After more than three hours of discussion, board members heard from hospital administrative staff and consultants, emergency medical personnel and property owners who live around the hospital, – some of whom haven’t been very pleased with recent activity the hospital has pursued to establish a new base for its Spirit Air helicopter – the board tabled any action on the issue.
Town chairman Mike Timmons at one point in the meeting said he would wager whatever dollar amount anyone had in their pocket that there isn’t anybody who’s against the helicopter at Howard Young.
“Everybody understands why it’s here, everybody needs it,” he said. “The question here is the fact that it is bumping up to the single family zoning district across the street ...”
The basic issue
In essence, hospital officials are looking at moving a Spirit Air helicopter and all support equipment and personnel now based at a hangar the hospital leases from the city of Rhinelander at the Rhinelander/Oneida County Airport.
Howard Young currently has a lease on the hangar. There is an option to purchase.
The move would be to the Howard Young Medical Center in Woodruff, which is what administrative staff contend is more centrally located for five Ministry hospitals the Spirit Air helicopter serves in northern Wisconsin.
In addition to Howard Young, those hospitals are Flambeau Hospital in Park Falls, Sacred Heart Hospital in Tomahawk, Eagle River Memorial Hospital and St. Mary’s Hospital in Rhinelander.
To get the helicopter closer to the hospital emergency room at Woodruff, the hospital built a new helipad on the hospital’s west side in 2011 and had started to prepare property nearby for a building to house a helicopter and Spirit’s ambulances.
The case for approving the Spirit Air base at the hospital was made by Jerry Inman, a longtime consultant for Howard Young; hospital vice president of operations Laurie Oungst; Charlie Kotke, the Northern Region Manager for Ministry Medical Transport; Ryan Short, an 18-year flight paramedic with Ministry Health Care and Spirit Transport Services; and Dr. Roderick “Rick” Brodhead, medical director of emergency services at Howard Young.
The message the five had for the audience was how much time would be saved not just for possible trauma patients in Woodruff but for what they said was an estimated 155,000 people served by the five hospitals in this part of Wisconsin.
Oungst, saying the hospital wants to be a good neighbor, gave an overview of the logistical need at the hospital, saying there was no room for the hospital on the east side, closest to U.S. Highway 51 and that using the old helicopter landing zone was no longer an option because of its proximity to the hospital’s receiving docks and garbage dumpsters, among other things.
One other item she mentioned in her portion of the presentation was whether or not the hospital was planning to locate a 12,000-gallon fuel tank on the hospital’s property, which has been included in the conditional use permit application.
At a Nov. 13 Woodruff town board meeting, there had been no mention by hospital staff of the installation of a 12,000-gallon fuel tank, something Timmons mentioned later in the meeting.
“It is informational, at this point, so I wanted to make that point of clarification,” she said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Oungst was also the first person to talk about time savings, saying that when the old helipad was used, the time from the helicopter to the emergency room was five minutes.
That time, she said, has been cut down to one minute, 45 seconds at the new helipad on the west side of the hospital.
Kotke, with medical team flight time in his past, talked more in-depth about the time savings during his presentation to the audience and cited data gathered that indicated a centrally-located medical transport helicopter in Woodruff was going to save everyone a lot of time.
Short gave an overview of what a day in the life of a flight paramedic is like and then Brodhead, with some emotion, told the story of how having the ability to transport trauma patients by air from Woodruff was critically important and helped save the life a young boy who was about six months old at the time of his fall from an SUV in 2011.
County involvement so far
Oneida County Zoning Administrator Karl Jennrich, also at the meeting, said the hospital, with helicopters landing in its parking lot at the time, originally applied for a conditional use permit in 1985 that included the establishment of a designated helipad, which ultimately became the landing zone on the east side.
Jennrich said the county had been approached by the hospital in 2010 or 2011, wanting to establish a helipad on the west side of the building, closer to the emergency room entrance.
He said there wasn’t going to be an increase in use from the 1985 granting of the conditional use permit by the county.
“To me, I exercised common sense, in my opinion, and allowed the relocation of the heliport pad [to the west side],” he said. “Right or wrong, it was a decision made by the department.”
Jennrich said he couldn’t definitively say his department had the input of the town of Woodruff.
“I’d like to say we probably did not,” he said. “So, again, egg on my face for not contacting the town of Woodruff for the relocation of that helipad.”
He said the reason for the item being on the Woodruff board’s agenda, however, was what he said was a little bit of a change in use than what was originally approved.
“We just approved a landing field for the pick-up and drop-off of patients,” he said. “What they want to do right now is ... have a helicopter based there permanently ... so they can actually base their operations out of here versus Rhinelander.”
He went on to say it would mean an increase in the number of flights coming into and flying out of the Woodruff location.
As far as the 12,000-gallon fuel tank the hospital included in its permit application, Jennrich said that when people submit these applications, they’re encouraged to include everything that might be installed, even if isn’t something that is going to occur immediately.
He said that is why he told the town the permit process could be handled one of two ways – either with an administrative use, which is reviewed by his staff using input from the town – or “we could it with a conditional use permit, which does have a public hearing, which does allow public input,” he said.
“Ultimately, decision-making in the conditional use permit process is with the Oneida [County] Planning and Zoning.”
Jennrich said that with the conditional use permit process there would be a public hearing after which the town makes a decision.
Following the presentation on the hospital’s behalf, Timmons reiterated his belief that there wasn’t a single person in the room who was against the hospital having a helipad.
“The question on this whole subject is, ‘Does it have to be in a residential neighborhood?’ and that is what the key address of this meeting is all about ... and it’s very important part of it that those minutes do count,” he said. “The question that came to this town board, that we have to make our decision on, are strictly, and I hate to say this, non-emotional questions ...”
While the possible placement of a 12,000-gallon fuel tank on the hospital property is a concern, the biggest issues those living around the hospital have are the noise and increased number of flights coming in and out.
Jean LaPlante and her husband, Rick, live in a home Jean said her parents built about a block away from the helipad.
“While I appreciate the opinions of what people think or might not think, until you’ve really experienced it, I don’t know that you can truly say what happens,” she said. “The noise is very loud and I understand they can change the approach or whatever but it all depends on the wind and you can’t predict nature.”
She said the previous Sunday afternoon there had been a take-off and the helicopter flew right over her house.
“It shook the house and actually my first thought was ‘Oh my gosh, is it going to crash?’ and my second thought was anyone who has post-traumatic stress syndrome or was in a war ... that would scare them because it scared me,” she said. “It’s loud. It’s not like an airport where you have a large block of land as a buffer. This is a block way.””
LaPlante went on to talk about how the vibrations from flyovers have, over time, done things like trip mouse traps in her attic and loosen hardware holding light fixtures in place in her home.
“Our house shakes a lot,” she said. “It’s to the point where I question, you know, the foundation.”
Like Timmons, she said she understands and appreciates the need and importance for the air operations at the hospital and where the helicopter lands now.
“However, when you add on up to 750 take-offs or landings in a year, that’s more than two a day,” she said. “That’s a lot for someone who lives right there in a residential area.”
LaPlante said her house wasn’t the only one and that the week before she and her husband had been at a friend’s house for dinner when a Spirit Air helicopter came in. That house, she said, is even closer to the helipad.
“You could feel the chairs shake on the floor,” she said.
The particular helicopter LaPlante mentioned, it was found later, is a larger helicopter that occasionally flies in from Marshfield and wasn’t using designated flight paths and going over homes, which hospital officials said it shouldn’t be doing.
Some residents at the meeting spoke on the issue of property values, countering claims made by Howard Young staff that the values would go up because of the level of care provided.
Jerry Kaziak, who also owns property immediately across from a clear cut area on the hospital’s west side, asked if there was still time to send in his comments and input on the matter. The answer was yes.
“First off, I don’t think Howard Young has been a good neighbor to any of us who are around there,” he said.
He went on to say that a number of years ago he had gotten a permit from the town to build a garage across from the hospital.
He said at the time he had been asked by the zoning committee if he planned to build a house there and the response, at the time, was yes, he did intend to build a house at that location at some point.
“I can tell you now, after coming up in the last month and seeing everything that’s been taken down ... I had planned on retiring up here and building a home there but I’m not going to do it now,” he said. “I’m a little emotional about this and I have a number of other comments I think are very good, including the placement of the water tower and how that was fought over the years and we can go back to ‘85 about that and how because of the helicopter it wasn’t allowed in different places but I’d like to send in a written comment if I could.”
Woodruff resident Todd Albano said he never received a letter regarding any type of meeting regarding the changes and that work had started on the building to house the helicopter and ambulances on the hospital’s west side had started without a permit.
“You can go over and see the construction site, it’s been all excavated and staked out and that was something that was alarming to a lot of people because nobody knew what was going on,” he said.
Albano said as an EMT on a local rescue squad he doesn’t have a lot of complaints with the hospital. He believes, however, the hospital’s new helipad near the emergency room was put in without a permit. Has addressed the issue of taking care of patients in a timely manner.
“What we’re concerned about is when it’s not an emergency take-off and landing,” he said. “They could be using the old, existing helipad on the commercial (east) side of the hospital where it’s been all these years ... when it was there we didn’t hear it.”
As far as property values, Albano indicated he had issues with anyone who says the proposed changes at the hospital wouldn’t affect property values.
“I went online and did a lot of research and I’ve got a number of things that address property values ... specifically, when medical helicopters are put in and there are just shy of three million entries on the Internet,” he said. “And one after another after another after another says negative impact on property values.”
Albano said he had also found being a part of a medical helicopter flight crew is among the most dangerous occupations there are.
“There have been a number of medical helicopter crashes just in the last few months,” he said. “I won’t stand here and give you a bunch of statistics. I’ll just tell you they’re out there.”
Timmons’ remarks and the future
Following the input from the Howard Young staff members and the residents, Timmons, who along with other members of the board indicated he didn’t feel he could vote on the permit application at that meeting, said he had a problem with the emphasis switch from time to safety by the hospital from when it applied for the administrative use permit to the conditional use permit.
“Last month, it was not a safety issue with the administrative review permit,” he told Oungst. “You discussed it that evening [Nov. 13] and it was a time factor and that’s why you wanted [it] over on the other side.”
He said now, going to the conditional use permit application, it’s going back to a safety issue.
“I have an issue with not being honest on Nov. 13,” he said.
In his remarks, Timmons intimated there were too many unanswered questions on the matter.
He said the town could say no to several items on the permit, such as the 12,000-gallon fuel tank but he said he didn’t think those were the answers Howard Young wants to hear.
“You want to go out of here or the county board meeting with a conditional use permit ... like you did for the ‘84 or ‘85 permit,” he said. “And I don’t believe a lot of those questions asked the night of Nov. 13 have been answered.”
Timmons said he had spoken to two property appraisers from outside the area.
“One said, ‘Absolutely, it’s going to have an effect on property values’ and the other one said, ‘I’m not sure.’”
Once again, he acknowledged the need and benefit to the entire Lakeland area but he also issued a reservation.
“Every time Howard Young expands, we go backwards,” he said. “We have a very good working relationship with Howard Young, they pay us money in lieu of taxes every year, but every time our services have to grow, we have the same amount of money coming in in lieu of taxes.”
Howard Young has two pieces of property coming off the tax roll to be included in the proposed changes and that’s something Timmons said the taxpayers in Woodruff will have to absorb.
“Unfortunately, the 155,000 people that you’re bringing up in here aren’t going to pay for it,” he said.
After some more discussion, including a portion of the meeting where Oungst, Kotke, Short, and Brodhead gathered around the town board tables to look more closely at maps, the town board tabled the matter until its next regular meeting Tuesday, Jan. 22.
After the meeting, Oungst said she appreciates there are members of the town board who have the need for more information.
“I’m encouraged that they want to continue to work together and to research the questions they still have and work together to find some potential solutions,” she said.
Brian Jopek may be reached at email@example.com.