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Sutter SVP Cohill doesn't anticipate impact on construction

SANTA ROSA – Just two days after Sutter Health broke ground on its new $284 million hospital – a project nine years in the making – the North Sonoma County Healthcare District led a group of opposition in filing suit to block development.

The lawsuit, filed Sept. 22 in Sonoma County Superior Court, takes direct aim at the county and the Board of Supervisors for approving what plaintiffs describe as a “flawed and fragmented” environmental impact report that violates the California Environmental Quality Act, also known as CEQA. The suit also questions whether the 82-bed hospital is fully in line with the Health Care Access Agreement.

But Sutter said the suit lacks merit, the EIR is beyond thorough, and it is confident it will prevail in court.

“We don’t think the petitioners have any chance of success,” said Mike Cohill, senior vice president of Sutter Health. “Sutter itself uses a very thorough process and is very familiar with CEQA. It’s been an exhaustive process and thoroughly vetted. Our confidence is based upon the thoroughness of the EIR process itself.”

Mr. Cohill added, “It’s also fair to say that a lawsuit was not totally unexpected.”

Sutter faces a deadline of Dec. 31 for meeting construction milestones that will grant it an extension in meeting state-mandated seismic requirements.

Mr. Cohill didn’t think the suit would have any impact on that deadline, and construction is already underway.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously signed off on the plan in August after numerous public hearings that featured scores of proponents and opponents lobbying the board.

Among the opponents is Evan Rayner, chief executive officer of the North Sonoma Healthcare District, which oversees operations at Healdsburg District Hospital, the lead plaintiff against Sutter’s project. Mr. Rayner has continuously questioned both the environmental impacts and the delivery of health care in the county, saying smaller district hospitals could be severely impacted or even face closure.

Joining the health care district in the suit is Palm Drive Hospital, the California Nurses Association and a San Rafael-based anti-sprawl group, Transportation Solutions Defense Fund.

“All parties of the suit believe there are serious flaws and problems with the project’s approval and its associated environmental documents,” said health care district counsel William Arnone in the formal announcement of the suit last week.

“The issues encompass General Plan consistency, compliance with County of Sonoma Codes, confusion regarding the size and scope of the project inconsistencies in how environmental and socioeconomic impacts are addressed, conflicts with locating the use outside of the city [of Santa Rosa] and more.”

While the suit alleges the environmental impact of the project will be significant, particularly with respect to traffic, air quality and noise, it also says the new Mark West Road location – meant to replace the seismically unsafe Chanate facility -- will have an adverse impact on the delivery of health care, despite getting approval from the Health and Human Services Department.

“What was never examined is that the Health Care Access Agreement will expire within five years of the opening of the new hospital,” the health care district said in the suit announcement. “The result is that the county’s need for a long-term stable health care plan is still not accomplished. The unknown health care and environmental implications of this issue alone require further review.”

Construction is expected to take four years, and a contract with Sonoma County expires in 2021, a result of Sutter taking over operations of the former Community Hospital in 1996.

Mr. Cohill dismissed such criticisms, saying the arguments are “somewhat esoteric” and all concerns were addressed in the plan approved by the county.

“We’ve made the argument all along that all we’re doing is moving the services that we currently provide from one location to another, and if our motivation was to be able to continue to provide our services in a location that meets health care requirements, I frankly don’t understand how Healdsburg constitutes that as a threat,” Mr. Cohill said. “There are essentially no changes in services provided.”

Judge Robert S. Boyd has been assigned to the case for now. No court dates or hearings have been set. Mr. Cohill said the contract with Sonoma County means that Sutter will foot the legal cost of the suit.