By GUY KOVNER and BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Hospitals in Healdsburg and Sebastopol, joined by an environmental group and a labor union, are suing Sutter Health and Sonoma County over last month’s approval of a new $284 million Sutter Hospital north of Santa Rosa.
The lawsuit alleges that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ approval was based on a “flawed and fragmented” environmental analysis that should be set aside.
The 22-page lawsuit also seeks a court order to block development of the hospital, nearly a decade in the making, until all legal requirements have been met.
Groundbreaking was last week for the 82-bed hospital set to open in late 2014 on a 25-acre site next to the Wells Fargo Center, off Highway 101 and Mark West Springs Road
Three of the plaintiffs — Palm Drive and Healdsburg District hospital boards, and the California Nurses Association — criticized Sutter’s proposal for a new hospital during prolonged hearings on the plan.
The fourth plaintiff is Transportation Solutions Defense and Education Fund, a Bay Area nonprofit founded in 1994 to combat urban sprawl.
Evan Rayner, chief executive of the North Sonoma County Health Care District, which oversees Healdsburg District Hospital and who officially authorized the lawsuit, said the district would not release a statement on the lawsuit until Wednesday.
The suit reiterates two objections to the hospital that were voiced during the lengthy debate:
It is too far from county population centers and will “encourage driving and discourage transit use.”
It may result in the “downsizing or closure” of district hospitals and other medical facilities.
Valerie Brown, chairwoman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, defended the unanimous vote approving the hospital five weeks ago.
“We believe that when we reviewed the information that came before us — including the EIR and public comment — we did a good job incorporating all of that and made the right decision,” she said.
While she was not surprised by the lawsuit, Brown said she was not aware that the Healdsburg and Sebastopol hospitals still had strong objections.
A year ago, Rayner said smaller hospitals were concerned that they would lose much-needed revenue if Sutter were allowed to open a magnet for patients and specialty physicians.
Rayner said the “negative collateral financial impact on all of us could be significant in an already fragile environment.”
Sutter, which holds a contract with the county to provide public medical services until 2021, faces a state mandate to upgrade or replace the former Community Hospital on Chanate Road.
Lisa Amador, a Sutter spokeswoman, said the county made a “carefully considered decision” when it approved the hospital, calling it a “critical project for Sonoma County health care, and for jobs and the local economy.”
“It is unfortunate that taxpayers and Sutter have to bear the cost of this lawsuit, but we are confident that the county’s thorough environmental impact report and accompanying studies will demonstrate that the lawsuit lacks merit,” Amador said.
David Hurst, chief deputy county counsel, said Sutter — under terms of an agreement with the county — will be “primarily responsible” for defending the project in court.
Hurst said he had not thoroughly reviewed the lawsuit, but disputed the claim that the environmental report is flawed.
“We believe that the county acted in accordance with all applicable state laws” in approving the report and the project, Hurst said.
David Schonbrunn, president of the Transportation Solutions group, said the hospital site on the “fringe of Santa Rosa” is an “utterly classic” example of urban sprawl and conflicts with Sonoma County’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’re saying it is time to walk the talk,” Schonbrunn said. “There is nothing good about the site in terms of challenges that face the county and the world.”
Steve Birdlebough, chairman of the Sonoma County Sierra Club chapter, said the group was not part of the lawsuit but had opposed the hospital, calling for a location closer to a planned SMART rail station and Santa Rosa city bus lines.
In approving the project, county supervisors said public transportation to the site could be improved in time for the hospital’s opening.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs and for Sutter could not be reached for comment Monday.
The California Nurses Association opposed Sutter’s plans throughout the approval process. Its involvement stems from a union-led dispute over the company’s labor practices and business decisions, including the planned closure of a San Francisco hospital serving a predominantly low-income population.