Commission hears details for hospital expansion

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BRATTLEBORO — A vocal critic of how the operation of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital affects her neighborhood toted a banker's box of what she called evidence to an Act 250 hearing in the Brattleboro Municipal Building on Wednesday.

"Since 2003, we have been fighting this," said Sandra Cunningham, who lives on Maple Street. "And nothing has changed."

The District 2 Environmental Commission was in town to visit Brattleboro Memorial Hospital and get a look at the location of the proposed Ronald Read Pavilion, a four-story, 27,875-square-foot addition to BMH.

Following the site visit, the three members of the Commission convened a public hearing in the Select Board Meeting Room of the Municipal Building to discuss the Act 250 permit application for the project.

The project has already received the necessary approvals from the Brattleboro Development Review Board, but BMH needs the Act 250 permit from the state to break ground.

Cunningham's main ongoing concern with BMH is noise.

Her home is directly across Maple Street from a facilities driveway that leads to the hospital's boiler room. Her home is also within 50 feet of a restricted access way that will be used for deliveries during the construction of the new addition.

"We've been through construction before with the Richards Building," said Cunningham.

During that period, construction workers arrived before 7 a.m., with loud voices driving loud vehicles, many of them with backup beepers, she said. And that annoyance pales in comparison with the regular traffic she said she and her neighbors have to endure on a daily basis.

"I have not woken up without a beeping noise in many years," said Cunningham. "I have to wake up every single morning when they want me to wake up."

"It's obvious she feels very strongly about the information she has presented," said Chris Roy, an attorney for Downs Rachlin and Martin, representing BMH. "But this proceeding is about a permit application for the construction of the new building. It's not an application that relates to the equipment and operation of the existing facility. There are a lot of issues that have been presented that are not germane to the matter before the Commission."

Tom Fitzgerald, the chairman of the District 2 Environmental Commission, responded that he and the other two members, Cheryl Cox and Judy Schmidt, were aware of the reason for the hearing.

"We are not here for accusations," said Fitzgerald, after Cunningham characterized Rob Prohaska, BMH's director of Plant Services, of being "a pretty good spinner."

Cunningham expressed concern that the sound study Eddie Duncan presented did not accurately represent the actual "facts on the ground," because the software he used for his modeling studies could be manipulated to produce results beneficial to the hospital. She also accused BMH of turning off certain noisy equipment during the sound studies so that they don't show up in the findings.

Cunnigham's accusations matched similar charges she leveled during Act 250 hearings for the hospital's boiler replacement project.

Duncan, who works for Resource Systems Group, repeated the responses he gave during a July 2018 Act 250 hearing for the boilers.

"It's not in our interests to manipulate the modeling data as a company in Vermont doing Act 250 work," he said, noting his report is an accurate representation of the actual operating conditions of the hospital.

Fitzgerald, fighting not to show annoyance at Cunningham's interruptions, urged the meeting to continue.

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"We're here to take testimony," he said. "We're not here for a debate. Obviously you have an agenda. We have seen this. But in the meantime, we want to take the testimony. Let us decide how to proceed."

Duncan told the Commission that with the installation of the new boilers and the new equipment that will go along with the Ronald Read Pavilion, noise levels will actually be lower than they currently are.

He said in a worse-case scenario, his modeling program showed the noise levels from hospital equipment might reach 44 decibels, which is below the limits set by Brattleboro ordinance and below the World Health Organization's guidelines to protect against sleep disturbances.

Duncan collected noise samples of current operations at the plant, filtering out noise from nearby Canal Street and the sound of wind through foliage, rain and birds in trees.

"The existing background levels during the daytime are between 45 and 47 decibels," said Duncan. "The proposed sound levels are projected to be less than the existing night-time ambient noise of 39 to 45 decibels."

As to the contention that some equipment was turned off during the monitoring sessions, Rob Prohaska, BMH's director of plant services, pushed back.

"We are not changing anything to affect this particular set of modeling," he said. "We need to keep our patients, ourselves cool. We did nothing other than run it to keep the building the way it needs to be."

"The project has to comply with Brattleboro land use regulations," said Brian Bannon, the town's zoning administration. "Sound levels, if not in conformance, will have to be modified so that they conform."

The Commission also heard from Brud Sanderson and Serenity Wolf, civil engineers from Stevens and Associates, who gave more details about the building.

The Ronald Read Pavilion will stand in an internal courtyard that houses a small brick building that will be demolished to make room. The project calls for three new operating rooms and two floors of offices for primary care services. The project also calls for an updated equipment sterilization area, a larger cardiac rehabilitation facility, renovations to the endoscopy area and a rehabbed post-anesthetic care unit.

No new parking will be added for the new building. Additional parking for employees and visitors was created during the Richards Building phase of BMH's upgrade, said Prohaska, and some of the parking was planned for the erection of the Ronald Read Pavilion, too.

BMH also rents parking on Canal Street and will using that as an overflow lot for employees, he said. Even with BMH absorbing about half of the birth services with the closure of the birthing center in Springfield, said Prohaska, there will be enough parking for everybody. If all else fails, he said, BMH will contract with a valet service so that more cars can be parked closer together on the same footprint.

The plan also calls for new sidewalks to access three emergency exits, the removal of a retaining wall and the installation of an additional underground stormwater collection system. Cell phone equipment that is located in the courtyard will be consolidated and moved to another location.

Some of the facility's rooftop equipment, including a 15-year-old chiller unit, will be replaced and surrounded by a sound barrier, said Prohaska.

During actual construction, the various sub-contractors will use a parking lot on the Maple Street side of the Richards Building as a staging area, but workers will not be allowed to park on the hospital's campus or on nearby streets, said Prohaska. He said the construction manager will be renting the dirt parking lot behind the old Canal Street Burger King and will be running shuttles to get workers to the site.

The on-site staging area will be screened by construction fencing and temporary landscaping along Maple Street, said Prohaska. Deliveries to the construction site will only be allowed after 7 a.m. and delivery vehicles will not be allowed to wait in the neighborhood if they arrive before the work day starts, he added.

If the Act 250 permit is approved, the demolition will happen right away, followed by the pouring of the foundation. The entire project is expected to take two years, said Prohaska.

The $22.7 million project is being partially paid for with a $6 million bequest from Ronald Read, who died at 92 in 2014. To the surprise of many in the area, Read, a quiet, unassuming man, had amassed an $8 million fortune after investing in the stock market. To round out the cost, the hospital will borrow $10 million and use money it has set aside for the expansion. When the new operating rooms are up and running, the old operating rooms will be converted into a post-op recovery area. Space will also be converted for use by the gastroenterology department.

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 151, or raudette@reformer.com.


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