[caption id="attachment_20384" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="An environmental-impact lawsuit could have stopped construction on the hospital, if successful. (click to enlarge)"][/caption]

SANTA ROSA -- A Sonoma County judge has sided with Sutter Health and the Board of Supervisors over opponents of Sutter's forthcoming $284 million hospital north of Santa Rosa, determining that the  environmental impact review was exhaustive and that the suing parties did not have legal standing.

Read the judge's ruling in PDF format.

The ruling allows construction to continue without delay. The hospital is scheduled to open in fall 2014.

Opponents were led by the North Sonoma County Health Care District, which oversees Healdsburg District Hospital,  as well as the California Nurses Association, Palm Drive Healthcare District and Transportation Solutions, an environmental group. They contended that the new hospital was not in line with the California Environmental Quality Act and challenged the county's certification of the project environmental impact report.

"It's a ruling that we see is very supportive of the county, and we're excited that the hospital will move forward uninterrupted," said Mike Purvis, chief administrative officer of Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa.

Evan Rayner, chief executive officer of Healdsburg District Hospital, said it was too soon to say how the health care district would respond to the ruling.

"Our attorneys have acknowledged receipt of the court’s statement of decision, which found certain defects in the county’s review process," Mr. Rayner said in a statement. "They’re now in the process of analyzing the court’s decision, and it would be inappropriate for me or us to speculate on any aspect of the decision until attorneys have had adequate time to make their evaluations and recommendations."

While siding with Sutter's final EIR, the judge ordered the Board of Supervisors to reconsider some mitigation efforts and whether further measures should be adopted. He also asked the board to clarify whether the medical office building would be owned or operated by a governmental agency.

Sutter spokeswoman Lisa Amador said those matters will be clarified as soon as possible.  She also said the hospital is a major boon to Sonoma County.

"It's a $284 million project and an estimated 1,500 jobs will be provided," Ms. Amador said. "At the end of the day, we're going to get a new state-of-the-art hospital, which doesn't come around very often."

Mr. Purvis said Sutter, while happy with the ruling, found it disappointing that the suit was brought on in the first place.

"The competing hospitals had no legal standing, which is most unfortunate because they are taxpayer-funded hospitals," Mr. Purivis said."We really feel it's unfortunate that these small hospitals went out of their way to use taxpayer money in this fashion."

Both the Board of Supervisors and the county Health and Human Services Department signed off on the plan, which calls for an 82-bed hospital on a 25-acre parcel next to the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts and a medical campus that will include an 80,000 square-foot medical office building. The hospital possibly could expand by 27 beds.

The opponents claimed construction of the hospital would adversely impact the surrounding area, particularly with greenhouse-gas emissions and traffic.

But Superior Court judge Rene Choutea, in a 12-page ruling, said the lead parties -- the two health care districts -- did not have legal standing to bring an environmental challenge.

"In order to have standing to bring a CEQA challenge, petitioners must establish that they have a beneficial interest independent of the public at large or are a citizen in the region interested in having a public duty enforced," the judge wrote.  "Sutter challenges the standing of the North Sonoma County Healthcare District and Palm Drive Hospital, contending these two entities only seek to further their economic interests and may not raise environmental concerns. These districts are clearly not public entities or officials with an interest in enforcing the law."

Sutter did not dispute the California Nurses Association's or the Transportation Solutions' standing to file suit, according to the ruling. But the suit was filed by the North Sonoma County Healthcare District last September.

“All parties of the suit believe there are serious flaws and problems with the project’s approval and its associated environmental documents,” the healthcare district said at the time.  “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.”

But the judge ruled that opponents did not exhaust their "administrative remedies" in challenging the county's approval, essentially meaning they failed to raise the issues before a deadline.  Specifically, five of the seven issues raised by the filing parties were made after public comment period had closed on the issue, thus rendering them moot. Those issues included consistency with the county General Plan, inadequate consideration of alternatives, improper narrowing of the project description, greenhouse-gas analysis and an unclear project description.

Opponents also said the bed count had shifted over years, thus making the project unclear and inconsistent to the public.

Sutter’s original proposed new hospital called for a total 118 beds, with a possible expansion to 170 beds. The existing Chanate hospital, which must be closed by 2013 per state rules if it is not made seismically safe, has 208 licensed beds.

Eventually, Sutter resubmitted plans for a medical campus that would have included a 70-bed inpatient care hospital along with 28-bed physician-owned hospital that would not be subject to the Health Care Access Agreement with the county. Some officials said the hospital was too small. And the physician-owned hospital was scrapped after the federal health overhaul placed strict deadlines for such hospitals that Sutter would not meet.

Sutter then amended the plan to an 82-bed hospital with a possible 27-bed expansion, which is what the Board of Supervisors approved last August.

The judge found Sutter's July 19, 2010, plan consistent.

Opponents had also contended that the new hospital would negatively impact the delivery of health care throughout the county, possibly resulting in the closure of district hospitals, which would be a violation of the 1996 county Health Care Access Agreement, which stemmed from Sutter taking over operations at the current Chanate facility.

The judge did not address this matter specifically. He did write that the health care districts are "competitors of Sutter hospital acting for economic and competitive purposes," and therefore don't have standing to bring the suit.

Mr. Purvis said the county was ultimately vindicated in approving Sutter's plan.

"I think it's really the county that deserves the recognition," he said. "Sutter went the extra mile to address all the issues and the collaborative work done there was on target."