NEW HANOVER COUNTY — While New Hanover Regional Medical Center (NHRMC) formulated its proposal last year for a new medical facility in Scotts Hill, the hospital system was simultaneously preparing a rezoning application for the land dreamed as the site for the future 66-bed hospital.
The $210 million plans required a license from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS). Last September, the hospital submitted its “certificate of need” application seeking approval to add the beds. NCDHHS denied it in February; NHRMC appealed its decision later the same month.
Port City Daily reported last week that NHRMC filed a separate application with the county, a text amendment, which would create an exemption to an existing 52-foot height limit to “regional medical facilities.”
Pursuit of the text amendment goes hand-in-hand with the rezoning bid: An NHRMC spokesperson confirmed the two applications are related to plans to bring a hospital to Scotts Hill, and NHRMC is hoping for a favorable appeal ruling.
NHRMC stirred on expanding Scotts Hill going back at least as far as March 2020, according to emails obtained by Port City Daily. After the February denial from state regulators, NHRMC continued to push for maneuvers in Scotts Hill through local government channels. It was not until April 14 that the hospital halted the move.
NHRMC currently operates an emergency department in Scotts Hill, a borderlands area hugging both New Hanover and Pender counties. Its proposal to turn the 40-acre northern outpost into a fully fledged acute-care facility was joined with a proposition to close its midtown orthopedic hub.
The rezoning would allow the hospital system flexibility in its design of a new facility, while the text amendment would permit NHRMC to build a structure significantly taller than what current regulations allow.
Together, the two moves would ease red tape and make possible the construction of the new Scotts Hill facility — but only where county regulators are concerned.
NHRMC still must overcome the unfavorable ruling from state regulators, who found the hospital system “does not adequately demonstrate the need to develop 36 new acute care beds and to relocate 30 existing acute care beds, eight existing ORs, and other existing assets to develop a new hospital campus.”
When NHRMC conceptualized its vision for Scotts Hill and made a play for the certificate of need last September, New Hanover County still listed the hospital’s flagship 17th Street campus and the rest of the system’s assets within its own portfolio. Just over a week before state regulators handed down the denial, the $1.5 billion sale of NHRMC to Novant Health was finalized.
Now, both the county rezoning and text amendment applications are on deck. So far, the hospital system has held them back.
Carolyn Fisher, director of marketing and public relations for NHRMC, wrote in an email that the hospital system asked for the hearing on the text amendment to be postponed “to allow time for the appeal of the [certificate of need] denial to move forward.”
The text amendment would allow construction of a seven-story building at NHRMC’s Scott’s Hill campus. “Adding floors, if needed, rather than expanding the footprint of the building, is a better use of the land,” Fisher wrote.
She added that NHRMC would resume the process of filing the applications if the hospital system receives a favorable appeal ruling from the state.
In the rezoning application, NHRMC used language that mirrored the suitings of its Scotts Hill proposal, founded in projections of a burgeoning population that would require increased healthcare options — projections state regulators disagreed with.
“The further residential and employment center growth of this section of the county and the growth of the adjacent areas of Pender County have made it clear that additional medical center needs are to be addressed in the area,” according to the rezoning application.
Metadata of the text amendment and rezoning filings indicate the documents were generated in late March and early April, after the February decision.
Members of the hospital’s design firm, LS3P, exchanged emails regarding Scotts Hill as far back as March 2020, as the crew prepared the framework of the requests to New Hanover County. As is standard, the firm assisting NHRMC communicated with county staff during the process.
An LS3P architect noted in a November email to Taylor Simms, NHRMC facility planning director, that a county planning manager had said “it would be helpful to see what is being proposed in order to offer the most accurate advice.”
NHRMC opted instead to submit a general rezoning request — which does not require an accompanying site plan and cannot be leveraged by the county with conditions. Still, it was made clear in the application that the intended use of the land is a new medical facility.
On Jan. 14, 2021, an LS3P healthcare architect invited the same planning manager and other members of the NHRMC-LS3P brain trust to a “call to discuss the next steps for the Scotts Hill site.”
On Feb. 15, six days after the NCDHHS denied the proposal, the architect looked to schedule a follow-up call with the planner to talk about the project. Thereafter, the hospital and LS3P continued work on their proposals to New Hanover County.
In general, the public-facing part of the rezoning process begins with a “community information notice” put forth by the county to give nearby property owners details and information about a given project. This is the pregame for getting onto the agenda of the planning board.
NHRMC apparently had the intention of presenting the text amendment and rezoning application at the May meeting of the planning board, but recently an LS3P team member told county staff the hospital system wanted to temporarily hold the items.
Port City Daily requested comment from the NCDHHS on whether it’s standard for an applicant to entertain rezoning plans for a desired facility amid an appeal. In response, a spokesperson for the department directed Port City Daily to the certificate of need section of the NCDHHS website.
Read the rezoning request packet below:
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