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Excela challenges AHN’s planned Hempfield hospital

July 24, 2018

The planned site of AHN Hempfield, the first of four, 10-bed neighborhood hospitals to be opened in Westmoreland County, as seen on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017. The first hospital, which the Allegheny Health Network wants to open in summer 2019, would be located at the corner of Route 30 and Agnew Road.

Hempfield, Excela Health and Allegheny Health Network are in a court battle over the plan to build a “mini-hospital” on Route 30, but AHN says it plans to begin construction soon -- despite the litigation.

A hearing is scheduled July 31 before Westmoreland County Judge Harry F. Smail Jr.

The township approved AHN’s site plan in December. Excela appealed, contending Hempfield supervisors rushed the process without proper scrutiny.

In court filings, Excela contends AHN is “trying to put a size 12 (foot) into a size 9 boot” by proposing a 120,000-square-foot facility on a property without enough parking or stormwater mitigation, and without studying the impact it would have on traffic.

Hempfield argues AHN went through the proper steps and that Excela is looking for ways to prevent a competitor from moving in. The AHN hospital, proposed at the corner of Route 30 and Agnew Road, would be about two miles from Excela Health Westmoreland hospital in Greensburg.

“I don’t really see a real legal argument. They just have a lot of smoke and mirrors,” Hempfield solicitor Scott Avolio said.

AHN plans to start construction soon, saying it is “fully confident” the court will rule in its favor.

“We are proceeding and, pending final township approvals, will break ground this month,” the health system said in a statement.

The proposed hospital would consist of two buildings, containing an emergency room and 10 beds for observation and short-term stays. It is one of four proposed regional “micro-hospitals” established in a partnership between AHN, Highmark and Emerus, a Texas-based developer that will manage the hospitals. AHN also has proposed neighborhood hospitals in Brentwood, McCandless and Pine.

Hempfield approved the plan pending approval of a PennDOT traffic study and other conditions.

Excela has argued the township bent the rules to speed AHN’s project through.

“Excela Health simply has asked that AHN follow the same rules and regulations applicable to any other real estate developer to ensure a level playing field,” Excela said in a statement.

Excela officials declined further comment.

Much of the debate surrounds parking and an unusual development plan that would leave a third of the facility temporarily vacant.

AHN originally submitted a plan for the full 120,000-square-foot hospital. However, the plan included 375 parking spaces -- about 100 fewer than township code requires for a facility of that size, according to Excela.

Excela objected on these grounds, and AHN countered with an idea to build the entire facility but only occupy two thirds of it. Upper floors would remain empty until AHN solves the parking problem -- either by acquiring adjoining land to extend the parking lot or by getting a township zoning variance for fewer spaces.

AHN would then return to the township supervisors to get occupancy permits for the remaining space.

This concept, which AHN called “vertical phasing,” is not addressed anywhere in state and local laws and should not have been approved, Excela argues.

Avolio said the township has gone through the usual process for approving major projects. Traffic and stormwater concerns are addressed by conditions placed on the site plan approval, and he sees no problem with the “vertical phasing” proposal.

“It’s unique, and it’s not the usual development ... but there’s nothing to prohibit it,” he said.

However, the township hopes the legal argument will never get that far. It asked the court to dismiss the case on grounds that Excela does not have standing to oppose the development. Excela does not own property near the site and would not be negatively affected, except by increased competition, the township argued.

“They shouldn’t even have a case. But even if the case is considered on its merits, it’s still wrong,” Avolio said.

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