After an hour and a half of discussion from the public and among the Knoxville City Council members, Council approved the first reading of the rezoning ordinance that clears the way for Tennova Healthcare to apply for a certificate of need from the state.
Council suspended the rules for the public comment part of the ordinance reading, and allowed more than three people to speak for and against the rezoning, which will classify the property Tennova's been eyeing on Middlebrook Pike as office, medical, and related use land.
Tennova's Melanie Robinson spoke first in favor of the rezoning, and reiterated that the area is ideal for the planned hospital since the property is close to existing medical facilities and services, and is centrally located. She also reminded Council that Tennova plans to leave 44 acres undeveloped as a buffer zone between the hospital and surrounding neighborhoods.
"We've listened. We've talked. We've had dialogue," she said, and asked Council to go ahead and approve the rezoning.
Two physicians who work at St. Mary's, Drs. Paul Baker and John Simmons who both worked at the hospital for about 30 years spoke after Robinson, and offered their support for the rezoning.
"[St. Mary's] has aged to the point where it can't continue where it is because it needs so much updating," Baker said. "Something will be built on that land. It will not be a park."
A hospital, he said, would actually be friendlier to the community than some other commercial business.
Simmons, whose office is now on Weisgarber, was the head of radiology at St. Mary's for 20 years, and said he'd served on leadership councils representing physicians at the hospital.
"We think it's a great choice. It'll work well for our medical staff," he said of Tennova's plans. "We have a great medical staff. I don't think we can keep it together at the current location because it's just not serving our patients the way it needs to anymore."
After the folks on Tennova's side had said their piece, Friends of Middlebrook Pike's Rocky Swingle reminded Council that travel distance had previously been a concern of St. Mary's, especially for patients coming from outlying areas north and east of the city. Swingle also pointed out that St. Mary's had the second-highest number of emergency room visits in Knoxville last year, behind only UT's medical center.
"Tennova should expand the north campus and put money into St. Mary's to keep it open as a full-service hospital just as their long-term plan stated, all for the cost of opening a new hospital," he said. "Rezoning this property is about the future of our city. It's about placing a hospital where it's not needed, and taking away a hospital where one is needed."
Dana Fox, a North Knoxville resident, reminded Council that taking a hospital out of the center city seemed counterproductive to the City's efforts to revitalize downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods.
"The city has made great strides in redeveloping downtown," he said. "[Rezoning the West Hills property] would set back these neighborhoods for decades."
Continuing to encourage medical development in North Knoxville could bring more jobs to the area, Fox said.
"Please vote in the best interest of the patients and the community," he said to the Council.
Judith Neff, the president of the Fourth and Gill Neighborhood Association, said she was "incensed" by Tennova's plans to move the full-service hospital out of North Knoxville.
"The desired actions of this corporation will surely cause collapse in North Knoxville," she said. "With all the effort that you and my fellow citizens have put forth to protect and develop the North Broadway corridor, I realize you know full well what the deterioration of business around St. Mary's is likely to do to the entire corridor."
Neff acknowledged that Tennova was simply making a business decision, that it wasn't personal, but asked Council to protect her neighborhood.
Members of the public were allowed to speak in blocks of two to five minutes, but council member Duane Grieve spoke for 30 minutes on the matter.
His basic argument was that the rezoning ordinance was not an endorsement of Tennova or a snub to North Knoxville. It's a matter of deciding whether the land is appropriate for office building use.
"Let me get to the bottom line...of what we are being asked to do: rezone a portion of the property on Middlebrook Pike from agriculture to office," he said. "Let me stress this request before Council tonight is a rezoning issue. This is a land use issue."
He went on to read a lengthy letter from the Middlebrook property's owner, Charles K. Swan III , who was in favor of the hospital buying the land over another commercial buyer.
Council member Nick Della Volpe offered the first bit of resistance to the ordinance from the Council, saying that approval of the rezoning itself will have consequences beyond simply matters of land use.
"It's obviously a decision that has some momentous implications for our city and our community," he said. "Council member Grieve makes a very important point, that we're talking about a zoning issue here, and not changing the future of a hospital. I recognize that, but this is no ordinary zoning proposition. We are taking an action that may well seriously damage both the physical community in terms of loss of the housing tenants and owners of property, as well as the businesses. But more importantly, we're making a decision that will affect the lives of people."
He added that zoning laws allow hospitals on agriculturally-zoned land.
"It strikes me as a pretty good hedge of a bet for [Tennova] to put the office zoning on the property because if they don't get their certificate of need, they will have increased the value of the property by millions of dollars when they sell it to someone else," he pointed out.
Mark Campen and Daniel Brown both voiced their opposition to the rezoning, citing the wellbeing of North Knoxville, but every other Council member agreed with Grieve that the question they were faced with had to do with only land use, and approved the first reading of the ordinance.
It will have to be approved a second time before the rezoning is official.