All nine members of the Authority attended Tuesday’s lunchtime meeting and voted in favor. By taking ownership of the property, which is near Roswell and Providence Roads in east Cobb and zoned for residential use, WellStar avoids going through the county’s zoning process and can develop the property as it sees fit.
Only one resident urged the Authority against accepting the move, though three citizens spoke in favor. East Cobb Commissioner Bob Ott told the Journal he would have also preferred the project go through county zoning.
WellStar hopes to break ground on the 205,000-square-foot health park in the spring. The opening is slated for September 2014.
The $80 million campus will include such features as an urgent care facility, primary and specialty doctors’ offices, laboratories and a pharmacy. WellStar has received state approval for an outpatient surgery center on the site, though competitor Northside Hospital got that approval overturned in Fulton County Superior Court. WellStar is now appealing that to the Georgia Court of Appeals.
WellStar bought the 23 acres from local lawyer Tom Cauthorn for $9 million, or just under $400,000 per acre, in July 2009.
WellStar’s governing Board of Trustees voted on Nov. 1 to transfer the property to the Authority, subject to the current lease agreement between WellStar and the Authority.
Some neighbors previously expressed frustration with the idea of more traffic on the steep Providence Road, though WellStar officials say they plan to have traffic access the health park only from Roswell Road. Some also wanted limits on the hours of activities such as trash pickup, and a design that would not flood their properties with bright lights at night.
Burt Wallace, who lives in the Independence Square subdivision, urged the Authority members to reject ownership of the property, thereby forcing WellStar to seek county zoning approval.
The county’s zoning process generally requires developers to work out their differences with neighbors and stipulate to such agreements in writing.
Wallace said the health park would have a “severe impact” on quality of life in the area.
“This is my home,” he said. “I hope you can appreciate that. The concerns of the neighbors have been marginalized and ignored. … We’re not anti-development, we just feel it needs to be accommodating to our concerns.”
Wallace also said there are “serious conflict of interest concerns” with some members of the Authority who are or previously have been connected to WellStar and some who may have financial interests in the development.
Two Authority members — Charlie Jones and Randall Bentley, Sr. — are also WellStar Trustees, which WellStar lawyer Leo Reichert said is not unusual and does not present a conflict.
As the Authority members were discussing whether to accept the property, Jones asked Wallace what conflict he saw.
Wallace said the affiliations many board members have with WellStar presents “an intrinsic bias.”
“It looks like the fox is guarding the henhouse,” he said.
County Commissioner Ott said he previously told Jones that Ott wanted the project to go through zoning, “because people in the district felt that gave them a better opportunity to continue working with WellStar to come up with a project that met everybody’s concerns.”
“The folks at WellStar, to their credit, have said they’d continue working with the community,” Ott said. “That would be my hope, even though it’s not required. They’re to be commended on the fact that they made the effort.”
Ott said he didn’t learn about Tuesday’s scheduled vote until Monday.
Owen Brown, a member of the advisory committee WellStar created to hear neighboring residents’ concerns, commended the Marietta-based health system for trying to build the project.
Brown is a real-estate developer and owner of Retail Planning Corp., which owns Woodlawn Point and Woodlawn Square shopping centers not far from the proposed East Cobb Health Park, among other properties.
Brown recalled his experiences helping his church, Johnson Ferry Baptist, open a satellite church in Acworth, a project that was ultimately split with WellStar for a health park in that part of the county.
“The zoning took one year to get approval. Then one neighbor sued both of us, and the lawsuit lasted five years,” he said. “I urge you to put this in the authority. Here, you’ve got Northside fighting you every step of the way. If you go through zoning, you can count on five to six years. Will the state grant you five one-year extensions (on the surgery center)?”
Sharon Mason, a senior vice president of the Cobb Chamber of Commerce and an east Cobb resident, said she’d like to see the health park built “as soon as possible.”
“I’m delighted to see the financial interest WellStar is building in the community,” Mason said. “Surrounding businesses will benefit and new businesses will come as well.”
Kim Menefee, a WellStar senior vice president, told the Authority that respondents in telephone surveys and focus groups were “overwhelmingly positive” about the project.
Still, Lee O’Neal, a member of the advisory board who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, told the Journal he would have rather the health system go through the zoning process.
“The value of zoning to the surrounding neighborhoods is to give neighbors a voice, and then to document commitments by WellStar to incorporate design features,” said O’Neal, a telecommunications executive who also lives in the Independence Square subdivision. “The neighborhoods want a commitment from WellStar to limit the intensity of use and to incorporate usage design limits to help protect the neighborhoods. Through the advisory committee, WellStar has listened to the neighborhoods’ requests, but to date, WellStar has made no commitment to incorporate those requests. And that’s all the neighbors want.”
Bob Prillaman chairs the Kennestone Hospital Authority. Other members are Tom Phillips, Bentley, Bill Enete, Butch Thompson, Bill Hutson, Janet Street, Jones and Dr. Paul Payne.
Tuesday afternoon, WellStar spokesman Keith Bowermaster said in a statement that the health system aims to build a health park with greater access to health services “while being respectful of the surrounding neighborhoods.”
“Due to continued unfounded objections from Northside Hospital, the project has been significantly delayed, and the zoning process would potentially create additional delays. For more than two years, WellStar’s new Acworth Health Park was delayed by zoning-related litigation,” according to the statement. “WellStar and the Cobb County-Kennestone Hospital Authority strongly believe it is the right decision and in the best interest of the communities that they serve to move forward with the East Cobb Health Park.”
As to fears of a future helicopter landing pad at the site, Bowermaster said there would be no reason for WellStar to install that.
“Air transport is used to transport a patient from the scene of an event to a hospital, or from one hospital to another hospital,” Bowermaster said. “The East Cobb Health Park is not a hospital.”