[caption id="attachment_20384" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Construction of the $284 million Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa started last fall and is set to open in 2014. (click to enlarge)"][/caption]

SANTA ROSA -- A Sonoma County judge today heard arguments in a lawsuit filed to stop construction of Sutter Health's $284 million hospital next to the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts north of Santa Rosa.

Superior Court judge Rene Chouteau heard the arguments from attorneys for Sutter Health and the North Sonoma County Healthcare District, which oversees Healdsburg District Hospital and was the lead party bringing the suit. The suit questions the scope of the project as it relates to licensed beds, greenhouse gas emissions and employment figures.

A ruling is expected within the next few months.

Attorneys with Shute, Mihlay & Weinberger, representing the health care district, argued that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors erred in certifying the environmental impact report on Sutter's forthcoming hospital. The report fails to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, they assert.

"The EIR is filled with inconsistent and conflicting data about the project's basic attributes," according to the brief by district's legal brief for the hearing today. The attorneys previously called the report "flawed and fragmented."

The groups bringing the lawsuit argue in filings that Sutter's bed count at the proposed new hospital -- 82 beds with a possible expansion of 27-bed expansion -- falls short of requirements in the 1996 county Health Care Access Agreement. That document permitted Sutter to take over operations from the county at the Chanate facility, a much larger hospital.

Sutter's attorneys from Cox, Castle & Nicholson countered that the bed count is not the most relevant factor. Rather, square footage and staffing ratios are what should determine the appropriate level of care provided.  The scope of the project, which has changed over the years, fits within CEQA's guidelines and that the county was correct in its approval of the project, the team argued.

"Hospitals often have fluctuating numbers of beds that can be used by patients," Sutter's attorneys wrote in a court filing. "Indeed, due to strict hospital staffing ratios, the actual number of beds in use is dependent on the available staff."

Joining the health care district in the suit are Palm Drive Healthcare District, California Nurses Association and San Rafael-based Transportation Solutions Defense Fund.

The Sonoma County Department of Health Services had to approve Sutter's planned new hospital before the Board of Supervisors could do so. The department did so last July.