As hospital grows, will wetlands shrink?

Both Helen Ellis and a developer have plans for land surrounding the hospital, but some wetlands would be lost.

By ELENA LESLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published August 24, 2007

TARPON SPRINGS - Officials from Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital are asking the city to give a developer permission to build on land surrounding their site, even though it would encroach on nearby wetlands.

But those who saw a presentation about the project this week weren't overly concerned with local fauna.

"I don't want rabbits and squirrels standing in the way of a hospital providing care I might need someday," planning and zoning board member Tod Eckhouse told the City Commission Tuesday night.

Mayor Beverley Billiris had a similar reaction to plans outlined by developer A.G. Armstrong and representatives from the hospital at a commission meeting. She said the community's medical needs trump ecological concerns.

With the approval of Helen Ellis administrators, A.G. Armstrong plans to build a medical office building, parking garage, residential units - 20 percent of which would be designated workforce housing - and retail center anchored by a Sweetbay Supermarket.

The developer hopes to buy about 10 acres of property from the city for the project. Some of that land is now leased by the hospital.

A.G. Armstrong already owns about 7 acres, said Jerry Touchton, marketing manager for the hospital.

The developer had been hoping to build on that land for some time when the company learned Helen Ellis was also interested in construction, said hospital CEO Don Evans. For years, the hospital has needed a medical office building, he said.

Without it, the hospital has had trouble retaining many high-quality physicians and medical specialists, Touchton said. Some doctors even refer Tarpon Springs patients to hospitals farther away because those facilities have adjacent office space.

Evans said the medical office building may be built in three phases and would offer covered walkways connecting the building, garage and hospital.

But to accommodate the development, builders will have to usurp about 8 acres of wetland, Evans said. AG Armstrong plans to mitigate the encroachment using property in Hernando County.

Representatives from the company will begin discussions with city staff before going before the commission again. But some city leaders have already voiced their approval for the development.

"This is the largest project the city has ever had," said Billiris, who added she hoped it could be completed within two years. "We're very pleased to have it coming before the city."

Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or 727 445-4167.