Suppose someone came to your region and agreed to build a $284 million, state-of-the art medical facility to replace one a few miles away that is aging and seismically unsafe.

This new hospital facility, which underwent more than six years of regulatory and public review, would accept responsibility for treating residents in your community regardless of their ability to pay.

It would be the largest project of its kind in your community in more than 60 years and, as it happens, would come at a time when the overall economy is in its worst recession since the Great Depression.

Over three years of construction, the project would employ 1,500 people. It would likely mean the difference between survival and failure of some local construction subcontractors hit hard by the recession.

You would say, of course, sue them.

And that’s exactly what two small hospital districts, a nurses’ union and left-leaning transportation policy group did last year when it challenged the Sutter Health hospital project in Santa Rosa.

Its weapon? Alleged violations of the California Environmental Quality Act in the hospital environmental impact report. CEQA, as the state law is known, is the Swiss cheese of regulations. Your opponents can almost always find a loophole to stop a project.

But this time it didn’t work.

In what amounted to a judicial smack down, a Sonoma County Superior Court judge found the North Sonoma County Healthcare District in Healdsburg and the Palm Drive Healthcare District in Sebastopol – both public entities – were said to have no legal standing to bring the suit in the first place.

“They are competitors of Sutter hospital acting for economic and competitive purposes,” Judge Rene Chouteau said in his decision.

Among the most hilarious comments after the judge’s ruling came from the president of the San Rafael-based Transportation Solutions group, which joined the hospital districts in the suit along with the California Nurses Association.

“They are planting this hospital in the middle of nowhere,” the group’s official was quoted in a news report.

“Nowhere?” The Sutter site is bordered on one side by a busy six-lane freeway. And surely the residents of Larkfield, the thousands of people who go to the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts and work at or use the two Kaiser-Permanente medical facilities nearby will be surprised to know they are “in the middle of nowhere.”

Yes, Judge Chouteau did direct the county and to address two technical issues in the EIR, which for Sutter’s court opponents is the rough equivalent of being on the losing side of a 30-to-1 soccer rout.

But the most unfortunate impact of this legal sideshow is the cost to public entities and non-profit organizations at a time when budgets are in crisis.

But that should be behind us now.

Someone asked recently how the local economy was faring, and the response went something like this: Although things seemed to slow a bit in May and June after a strong start to the year, Sonoma County appeared to be doing a little better than most, in no small part because of projects like the new Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa.

Now, with the cloud of the lawsuit removed, it can move full speed ahead.


Brad Bollinger is Business Journal editor in chief and associate publisher. He can be reached at 707-521-4251 or bbollinger@busjrnl.com.