SUMMIT, NJ - The Summit Common Council has voted unanimously to instruct City Solicitor Thomas Scrivo to join in arguments against the application of Overlook Medical Center and Atlantic Health Systems to the New Jersey Department of Transportation for permission to erect a helipad.
Overlook and its parent corporation appealed to Union County Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy the decision of about two years ago by the Summit Board of Adjustment denying permission for the helipad. Cassidy denied the appeal, and the hospital appealed its case further in state courts. A court decision on that appeal was expected this fall but the word on that has not yet come down. In the meantime, earlier this month the hospital organizations applied to the DOT for a hearing.
Taking the lead in Tuesday's council discussion on the helipad issue was Councilman Patrick Hurley, whom Council President Richard Madden described as being thoroughly familiar with both fixed-wing and rotary aircraft from both his military and civilian experience.
Hurley, who said he had testified against the initial hospital zoning board application for safety reasons, said the medical organizations, by appealing to the DOT, were seeking to do an “end run” around the zoning board and local ordinances. He also said they were basing much of their case on court rulings based on private aircraft which, he noted, are far less dangerous than emergency helicopters.
The Second Ward representative said his opposition was not to the hospital itself, which does a great deal of lifesaving work and is a great asset to Summit.
He added that the hospital has not taken into account the low level of clearance of helicopters using the proposed Overlook rooftop facility vis-a-vis much larger commercial aircraft approaching Newark Liberty Airport through the Hilltop City.
The commercial aircraft, which, he said, have included a DC-10, operate at 1,600 feet above Summit, while an emergency helicopter would operate at altitudes up to 1,500 feet.
Prior to continuing with the council discussion, Madden invited any Atlantic Health Systems representatives in the audience to speak on the matter. No one in the standing-room-only crowd in the council chambers responded to his invitation.
Continuing the governing body discussion, Councilman Robert Rubino, a physician, said all Summit residents were connected to Overlook in some fashion and opposition to the application was based on home rule, not on opposition to the hospital.
Rubino added that the proper procedure was for the medical center to seek a ruling from the zoning board and, if dissatisfied with that ruling to pursue its case in the courts. He said to appeal to the DOT undermines the spirit of local rule and fair play upon which the hospital prides itself. It was Rubino who made the motion to have the city solicitor join with zoning board attorneys in opposing the Overlook DOT application.
The only hint of opposition to the motion came from First Ward Councilman Thomas Getzendanner, who said the council should trust the extremely strong case it had against the application to zoning board attorney Dennis Galvin and other board of adjustment legal representatives rather than accusing Overlook of improprieties.
Councilman Dave Bomgaars, however, agreed with Rubino. He added that the cases previously heard by the DOT were not in highly-populated area,
Councilmen Albert Dill, Jr. and Gregory Drummond added their opposition, much of it based on support for the local zoning board.
Drummond, whose son recently was treated at the hospital for a knee injury, said his admiration for Overlook's medical care did not diminish his opposition to the application.
Hurley, responding to Getzendanner's comments, said there still was a possiblity that Overlook could cite federal aviation regulations in an attempt to win its case and the council's opposition was needed.
Madden added that the volunteers on the board of adjustment had “busted their buns” during the 14 months of Overlook hearings and these efforts should not be ignored.
The council president, noting he was not opposed to the care a helipad would make possible, but to raising the roof on the current hospital building to accommodate the landing area, said a Union County freeholder told him the county would be willing to offer Overlook land in the Hidden Valley section of the Watchung Reservation as an alternative site for the helipad. Madden noted this site would be removed from high concentrations of population.
When it came time for citizen input, a resident of 266 Morris Avenue wanted to know why the council had not had a conversation before now with the DOT about its opposition to the helipad to convince the transportation agency that the application was not satisfactory for safety and health reasons.
Commenting on council questions about whether his opposition should be in a memo or in an appearance, Scrivo said there was a 30-day comment period beginning December 12 and, at the end of that time, the DOT would decide whether or not to hold a hearing. He said a hearing was likely due to the controversy surrounding the issue.
Resident David Lawrence of Summit Avenue disagreed with Getzendanner's assessment, saying the DOT needed to know clearly that Summit residents were opposed to the application. He also said Overlook had “chutzpah” in going over the head of the local zoning board while supposedly exhibiting civic spirit by such actions as maintaining a hospital store in the central business district.
Former Councilman Michael Vernotico of 30 Blackburn Place said he fully supported the council resolution, citing his work on the law committee on an ordinance to prevent helipads as a permitted, accessory use on a hospital. This ordinance, now on the books, makes it necessary for the hospital to follow stricter zoning board standards before going forward with a helipad.
Vernotico added, however, that the ordinance did not go far enough because it did not add in suggested language requiring hospital helipads to be a certain distance from residences.
Kelly Deer, who belongs to a group working against the helipad, urged the council to take action on Tuesday because its next meeting will take place beyond the DOT comment period.
She added that Fairfield and Tewksbury are among communities pursuing litigation where the DOT has been pushing for greater control over local rule.
When the final vote was taken on the motion calling for Scrivo to pass on council opposition Getzendanner voted with his colleagues in favor of the move.
On another matter, revised council goals for 2014, Getzendanner said the wording on budgetary restraint should have been changed from “fiscal responsibility” to “austerity,” especially in light of the impending sale of the Merck property in Summit. He also said opening of the joint emergency dispatch center with New Providence should have been given a higher property. Likewise, deciding on a more efficient use of the city dump and restructuring recycling should have been given higher priority than renovation of the community center.
Bomgaars replied the council already had decided that “austerity” was not a specific enough term and that department heads would be given responsibility for carrying out more specific goals.
On another matter, the council voted down an ordinance to vacate a “paper street” right-of-way in a lot between 121 and 123 Passaic Ave. in order to give Merck attorneys more time to research ownership of the site. Merck has a well on the site, which is adjacent to its Summit facilities, and says it has maintained the area and may need it for access to the well.
A resident of the area said Merck has not maintained the area as well as it should. He also said Merck has other areas of its property that also provide access to the well.
Mayor Ellen Dickson and the council also paid tribute on Tuesday to Getzendanner and Bomgaars, who did not seek reelection and were attending their last meetings as council members.
Dickson called both men “workhorses” on the governing body and said their work changed Summit for the better.
Madden, who announced he would be handing his gavel as president over next year, praised both men for their work with him the past four years and during their nine years on the council. He said Getzendanner probably knew more than any other councilman.
Getzendanner, who will not be able to attend the council's Jan. 7 reorganization meeting, said he was proud to have worked for smaller and more efficient government and enabled the council to have a greater role in controlling city, school and county takes during his nine years on the governing body.
He regretted that his push for a citywide property revaluation had not been accomplished. In addition, he said the city should have conducted a more extensive search for an administrator when the post became vacant, rather than settling on a “homegrown favorite”--Christopher Cotter.
The outgoing councilman did, however, said the city had advanced in technology, brought pensions more under control and made departments operate more efficiently under Cotter.
Despite the fact that he often disagreed with Getzendanner, Dill called him one of the smartest people he knew. He said he would greatly miss Bomgaars, who he called a tremendous asset.
Dill also said Rubino, who is expected to be named council president, would have large shoes to fill in succeeding Madden.
Rubino called Bomgaars “Gentleman Dave” for his manner and his “classy dress” and set his attention to detail was something he would try to emulate.
Bomgaars thanked his colleagues for their kind words but said he would have more to say on Jan. 7.
Rubino also congratulated Getzendanner for devising an accurate estimate of tax balances and for his “loyalty to the city and not to himself.”
The First Ward representative also praised Madden for showing him the ropes when he first joined the council.
In another laudatory move, Dickson presented a proclamation to the Summit High School Football Team for winning the North Jersey Section 2, Group 3 crown and for their record of 24 straight regular season wins and 45 straight victories overall.
The mayor also proclaimed Tuesday as James Sadewhite Memorial Day in honor of the director of the Summit Symphony, who died in October, and Dec. 6 through Jan. 2 as the “Drive Sober or Be Pulled Over” campaign citing Summit's observance of the statewide crackdown on driving while impaired.
The governing body also honored Summit Middle School teacher Lauren McCormack and her students, who recently participated in formulating middle school public policy resolutions that they presented to the council.