Garberville hospital rebuild sits in airport impact zone, staff say

Southern Humboldt Community Health Care District CEO Matt Rees speaks to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday in Eureka about the district’s choice of a new site for its proposed hospital and clinic buildings.
Southern Humboldt Community Health Care District CEO Matt Rees speaks to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday in Eureka about the district’s choice of a new site for its proposed hospital and clinic buildings. Will Houston — The Times-Standard
A map of the Garberville area shows the proposed site of a new hospital and clinic location indicated by the red circle and arrow sitting within the hazard zones outside of the Garberville Airport runway.
A map of the Garberville area shows the proposed site of a new hospital and clinic location indicated by the red circle and arrow sitting within the hazard zones outside of the Garberville Airport runway. Humboldt County Public Works Department — Contributed

The proposed site for a new Garberville hospital straddles the edge of a zone where approaching aircraft could crash on approach to the Garberville airport.

Hospitals are currently an incompatible use for this airport zone, according to a county staff presentation to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, but the board has the ability override this and allow the project to move forward.

The trade-off is the county might risk losing Federal Aviation Administration funding for its airport system by making this exception, according to county staff.

And because project planners say the proposed hospital site is the only feasible location the hospital can be built, 3rd District Supervisor Mike Wilson said that the community is going to have to make a hard decision between the airport and the hospital.

“It even gets to the point where the community might have to ask itself which one it values more,” Wilson said.

The Southern Humboldt Community Health Care District is looking to construct a new hospital, emergency room and clinic building at 286 Sprowel Creek Road in Garberville. The site is currently home to the College of the Redwoods Garberville campus. The college’s board of trustees agreed to sell the property to the district for $1.1 million in November, outbidding the county, which was also eyeing the site for potential office sites.

The district’s and Jerold Phelps Community Hospital’s CEO Matt Rees said they did look at other sites for the hospital, but said there are no other sites with the utilities and infrastructure. Any other site would significantly increase the costs because it would require the district to construct its own water treatment and sewage systems along with other infrastructure.

“The hospital, at this point, we can’t afford it,” Rees said of building at another location.

The district states it needs a new hospital site as a result of stricter seismic building standards from the state that must be in place by 2030. Rees said Jerold Phelps Community Hospital’s current location at 733 Cedar Street will have to close because it doesn’t have the “land, parking and other things” that would come into play in building a new hospital.

Rees said after the public approved a parcel tax increase in June to fund Jerold Phelps Community Hospital’s existing emergency room services through 2020, he said it’s clear the public wants and is willing to pay for an emergency room in Garberville.

The new hospital site is about 4,000 feet away from the Garberville airport runway, but is located within the impact zone.

On Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors reconvened as the county Airport Land Use Commission to take up the issue of whether the hospital project was compatible with county’s airport land use compatibility plan.

County Public Works Director Tom Mattson said the answer to this question was clear, at least for the Airport Land Use Commission’s duties.

“The issue is do you want a hospital in an impact zone? And the plan says no, the rules say no,” Mattson said. “... If something happens there and you said ‘Yes,’ one of the issues in these areas is being able to minimize damage, minimize the risks to people’s lives and do you want a hospital in that area.”

The commission ultimately voted 5-0 to find the project inconsistent with the airport plan.

Mattson said amending the airport land use plan to take out the hospital location is also not an option.

Wilson asked whether relocating 100 feet of the Garberville Airport’s runway is an option. Mattson said he could come back with more information to see if that is feasible.

Deputy Public Works Director Bob Bronkall said that the College of the Redwoods campus is also incompatible with the airport land use plan, and that the site previously hosted an elementary school before the county’s airport land use plan was created.

Mattson said just because an incompatible building was there before doesn’t mean the county should allow one now that it has better information.

Unlike the Airport Land Use Commission, the Board of Supervisors has the authority to allow the hospital project to move forward, but Bronkall said this could impact federal aviation funding grants the county receives for the Garberville Airport and possibly other airports.

He said as a condition of receiving the federal grants, the county is assuring that it will protect and promote the integrity of the airports by making sure projects in the surrounding area are compatible with the airport.

“If the county chooses to allow non-compatible uses around the airport and over time it creates pressure from the community to want to close the airport down,” Bronkall said, “then that’s perceived by the government as a waste of resources.”

While hospitals and schools are prohibited from using the land under the county’s land use plan, Bronkall said that parks, playgrounds, low intensity retails, offices, manufacturing, food processing, and two-story motels are allowed uses.

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn said while the site looks like an obvious great choice for the hospital, he says the county also “can’t roll the dice with the public’s funds.”

“We get millions of dollars of years every year and I don’t think we can gamble with that,” Bohn said.

Sundberg said it’s clear that the Airport Land Use Commission had to find the site inconsistent with the county’s airport land use plan. Whether the board of supervisors will is another question.

“What happens after that is going to take some community input and some more information,” Sundberg said.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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