Venice Regional Bayfront Health (VRBH) will have to wait yet another month to see whether it will get the county’s approval of its proposed new hospital site.

The delay is preferable to the likely outcome of a vote if one had been taken at Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, however.

Concerns about widening East Venice Avenue from the roundabout to the site’s eastern entrance would have had at least three of the five commissioners voting against the hospital’s proposed comprehensive plan amendment.

The site is just south of East Venice Avenue and just east of the Jacaranda roundabout.

To build a replacement hospital there, VRBH needs the Commission to approve a comprehensive plan amendment to change the future land use designation of the site to Office/Multi-Family from Moderate Density Residential.

It also needs a rezoning from Residential Single-Family 3 to Office, Professional, Institutional Planned Development and a special exception to exceed the 35-foot height limit by building up to 85 feet.

Public comment took all the time available for the petitions at a hearing in August. Faced with more than 50 people still wanting to speak on the proposal Tuesday at the continuation of that hearing, the Commission cut the time allotted to each speaker from five minutes to three.

That enabled the Commission to get every speaker.

About 18 members of the public had spoken at the August hearing, mostly to oppose the project.

About half the speakers Tuesday spoke in favor of the site, though almost all of them were affiliated with the hospital.

They touted the site as being in a prime place to handle growth, in a safer location that’s readily accessible by I-75 from all over the county.

Time is critical in dealing with emergencies, several speakers said.

The closest other hospitals that offer comprehensive heart services, Dr. Jonathan Dreier said, are 45 minutes away, in either Sarasota or Port Charlotte.

If you have a heart attack, he said, “45 minutes north, 45 minutes south — you’re dead.”

Opposition came from people who live around the proposed site, with their major concerns being its impact on traffic on East Venice Avenue, a two-lane road; flooding; and a consequent loss of value in their homes and their quality of life.

At the conclusion of public comment, it quickly became apparent that widening East Venice Avenue was a make-or-break issue for several commissioners. And that was only because the project they were considering was a hospital.

“If this was anything but a hospital,” Commissioner Charles Hines said, “this would be a no-brainer ‘no.’”

Responding to commissioners’ questions at the August meeting, county staff had prepared a report on widening the road.

It would cost $24 million to widen it from the roundabout to River Road, Public Works Director Spencer Anderson told the Commission, while widening it only to the eastern entrance to the hospital site would cost about $2.8 million.

The right of way is adequate for four lanes, he said, but neither project is in the county’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan.

Representing VRBH, attorney Jeff Boone said his client would commit to entering into a developer’s agreement with the county for widening the smaller section of the road, with a significant financial contribution to it.

It would even undertake to build the road during construction of the hospital and front the additional cost above its contribution, to be repaid, he said.

That wasn’t good enough for Hines, who said he was looking for a more specific commitment before he could vote to send the proposed comp plan amendment to the state for review.

It didn’t satisfy Commissioner Paul Caragiulo either.

“My support of this is hanging completely in the balance of what they do with the road,” he said.

Commissioner Nancy Detert also expressed discomfort about voting without an agreement on the road in place, especially after Assistant County Attorney Alan Roddy said the county had to make sure the road deal couldn’t be construed as an improper developer “extraction” in exchange for regulatory approval.

Commissioner Al Maio suggested a compromise: postpone voting on the petitions until the Commission’s Nov. 7 meeting to allow Boone and the county staff to work out an agreement Roddy could approve.

The motion passed unanimously.

The Commission will consider the agreement then and decide whether to transmit the comp plan amendment to the state as well as whether to approve the rezoning and special exception then or wait until the amendment comes back to the board for adoption.

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