November 15, 2012The Grosse Pointe Woods city council approved a temporary helicopter landing site for St. John Hospital and Medical Center, but not without several caveats, the most notable being a 6-month time limitation. It will also limit the number of flights during that time period to a maximum of 25.
The approval, on a 5 to 2 vote, will allow St. John to install a temporary landing site for medical helicopter flights in the facility's north parking lot. The vote came following a public hearing at the council's November 19 meeting, where several Woods residents who live on the streets bordering the parking lot spoke in opposition to the proposed site.
St. John originally requested a one year time frame for the site, while it worked through the approval process for a permanent site with the city of Detroit. The hospital had originally planned a landing site on the Moross side of the hospital, but with Detroit officials balking at that location, it appears now that St. John will request approval for a permanent helispot on the top level of the parking garage adjacent to the Emergency Room entrance.
Working within that plan, St. John asked Grosse Pointe Woods officials to approve a temporary site for one year to allow sufficient time for the hospital to secure the necessary approval and financing for the project, as well time for constructing the facility, which would include installing a new elevator in the parking deck.
It was that one year time frame and the fact that St. John would need approval from the city of Detroit that caused council members to balk.
"I'm concerned that the approval process with the city of Detroit appears to be up in the air," said councilwoman Vicki Granger. "I'm not in favor of a one year time frame without seeing something in writing from Detroit indicating the site in Detroit had been approved."
St. John had first proposed the idea of a temporary site in August. At that time, it brought in a medical helicopter for a demonstration for Woods city officials. Concerned about the noise and disruption these flights could cause to residents, Woods officials asked for a second demonstration in October at which time several city employees were stationed throughout the surrounding neighborhood with decibel readers to measure the sound impact. At that time, few readings exceeded the 85 decibel limitation set by city ordinance.
It was the noise levels that brought several residents to the public hearing to complain about how it would impact their lives.
"I was home at the time of the flight, and it was very loud," resident Amy Wilcox told the council. "It shook the house. Can we call you when we're awakened in the middle of the night? Do any of the St. John people or you live where we live?"
Resident Steve Reid echoed Granger's concerns that without final approval of the permanent site by the city of Detroit this temporary site could become permanent.
"I'm actually a fence sitter on this," he told the council. "St. John is a large employer, but this could turn into a slippery slope if approval is not granted by Detroit."
St. John had originally indicated that the site would be handling only flights bringing stroke patients from the state's Thumb area, approximately 40 flights per year.
During further discussions, St. John acknowledged that the site might not be limited to those stroke flights alone, stressing that it would be impossible for an emergency room physician to turn away a patient who requires immediate treatment.
Several council members questioned the need for St. John to have a landing site, indicating that a number of hospitals in the area are currently equipped to handle incoming flights. St. John is already treating stroke patients brought in from the Thumb area, with those patients being flown by helicopter to Detroit's City Airport, then transported by ambulance to St. John.
It was that fact that Mayor Robert Novitke pointed out that St. John could use as a fallback plan when facing the proposed six month time limit and a limit of 25 flights during that time period.
"If your project exceeds six months, it is possible for you to go back to the way you do it now, " he said. "Also, nothing would preclude you from coming back to the city for an extension."
Councilman Michael Koester questioned how much benefit Grosse Pointe Woods residents would receive from this project, pointing out the obvious, that Woods residents would not be the one using the helicopter service.
"You're asking residents to give up peace of mind," he told St. John officials, "but how exactly would that help Grosse Pointe Woods?"
St. John officials responded that without a helicopter landing facility, St. John could face losing its status as a designated trauma center, which would impact services it could provide to Grosse Pointe residents in need of immediate emergency services.
The Woods planning commission recommended approving the site for one year while limiting the number of flights to 40, but following several motions by council members that were not supported, a compromise of a six month time frame and 25 flights was approved, with council members Granger and Todd McConaghy casting no votes.
Approval from Grosse Pointe Woods for the temporary site was necessary because while most of the St. John complex is located within the city of Detroit, a portion of the north parking lot is actually located in Grosse Pointe Woods.