Weeks after Virtua Health's plan to build a $1 billion hospital complex in Westampton, Burlington County, was warmly welcomed by the public, concerns raised by a vegetable farmer, a math professor, and others are surfacing.
Virtua obtained preliminary approval for the project after two public hearings this month, but some residents say they worry about pollution, right-to-farm issues, and the fate of a nearby hospital.
The issues being quietly raised, in letters to agencies and on Facebook pages, are:
- Would farmers in the area be affected if Virtua's project pollutes the streams and drainage areas nearby?
- What would be the effect on special-needs children, who would have to cope with the blare of ambulances, helicopter noise, and increased traffic that would come with a new nine-story hospital and other medical buildings on the 110-acre Hogan Farm, adjacent to their regional school?
- Would Lourdes Hospital, six miles away in Willingboro, be forced to close, leaving that community without adequate health care and with abandoned buildings?
- And finally, what about the endangered or threatened barred owl and Cooper’s hawk that were spotted on the site a decade ago?
When the New Jersey Health Planning Board held a hearing April 3 in Westampton to gather public input on the Virtua proposal, most of the 10 residents who spoke praised the project. It would save lives, improve health access, and bring economic stimulus to the township, they said. Some said they feared traffic would increase but hoped Virtua would take steps to minimize it.
Virtua plans to build a 339-bed hospital to open in 2022, replacing its hospital in Mount Holly, three miles away. The rest of the campus would be rolled out within 20 years. Plans call for a hospice facility, assisted living, long-term care, an ambulatory and surgical center, and medical buildings off Woodlane Road and Route 541.
At the board's second hearing, held in Trenton on April 13, the only person who expressed opposition was John Anderson, a Westampton farmer and environmental activist. He grows vegetables on a 60-acre farm he is planning to acquire that is directly across from the proposed hospital site.
Anderson, who also is heading an ambitious effort to have the Rancocas Creek designated a national water trail, said he was concerned about runoff contamination of the downstream waterways, which he said could affect farming. He gave the board various documents that depict the wetlands and drainage in the area and said pollution from the development could also hurt an area known for its Atlantic white cedar woodlands.
“The project would permanently alter a landscape” and the waterways, Anderson said in an interview. “We enjoy a quality bucolic lifestyle. … At night it’s very quiet and peaceful here and you can see stars and the Milky Way.”
The board approved Virtua's project, but as a condition, Virtua would be required to get approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection before construction could begin.
Virtua senior vice president James Rivard said in an earlier interview that the project is in the early stages and that Virtua plans to conduct studies and get all the required permits and approvals.
Anderson also said he is concerned about endangered or threatened species. A decade ago, he said, a housing developer who had considered purchasing the Hogan Farm asked the DEP to review the site and to let him know what he would be required to do before he could build. The DEP's 2007 review discovered that the barred owl, a threatened species in New Jersey, had a documented habitat at the site, and that an endangered Cooper's hawk was spotted in the area.
Virtua did not mention those species when it submitted a general development plan to the township in 2015, but said that it later plans to prepare a “detailed environmental-impact report.” The plan also noted Virtua anticipates “minimal impacts” to wildlife and said a federal agency determined in 2014 that there were “no federally listed or proposed threatened or endangered” species at that location.
Another Westampton resident, Suzanne DeGeer, also objected to Virtua’s plans in an email submitted to the state health planning board. She had different concerns.
Virtua’s new hospital would be constructed within six miles of the Lourdes Medical Center in Willingboro and this would “increase the competition between these two hospitals, with the expected result that Lourdes will be put out of business,” wrote DeGeer, an adjunct math professor at Rowan College of Burlington County and retired high school math teacher.
Willingboro would then be left with abandoned medical buildings, as would Mount Holly, the home of the existing Virtua Memorial Hospital, DeGeer said.
The two towns, she said, are struggling and “can’t afford to lose the business the hospitals presently pull in.” She also noted the 173-bed Lourdes Medical Center has a helipad and questioned why Virtua has proposed putting one at the Westampton campus.
Kim Barnes, a senior vice president at Lourdes Health System, said hospital representatives attended the public hearing in Westampton but did not comment on Virtua’s plans. “We are in the process of evaluating the facility and where they are planning to put the facility,” she said. She declined comment on whether Virtua’s project could threaten Lourdes' ability to remain open.
Virtua spokeswoman Peggy Leone would not specifically comment on the issues raised by the residents, but said in an email that “Virtua will work with the residents and surrounding communities to be a good neighbor during the planning for this project and for years to come.”
DeGeer said that other neighbors in the Tarnsfield development where she lives share some of her concerns, especially since their homes are close to where the hospital would be built. But they are not speaking out, she said, because they believe the project is “a done deal.”
Virtua purchased the land in 2012 and received preliminary planning and zoning approvals from the town’s Land Use Board and from the state health planning board. Other hearings are expected to be held after more detailed plans are submitted.
Terri Sackett, a Mount Holly resident and a retired superintendent of New Hanover schools, said that she worries about the effect the project could have on the Burlington County Special Services School District, adjacent to the Virtua site. The district covers pre-K to 12th grade and has about 400 students.
“Hearing ambulances all day long is a concern. I wonder if the students will be distracted with that constant noise,” she said. The din from helicopters could also be a problem, she said.
“Now that the hospital’s plans are becoming more public,” she said, “I hope the powers to be start looking at the concerns and start planning for all this.”