Enloe expansion a go
City council approves $110 million hospital makeover
As the clock neared midnight after 70 one-minute public testimonies, 30 minutes of proponent and opponent presentations and an hour of deliberation by a sometimes confused Chico City Council, that body voted this week to approve five resolutions that clear the way for the Enloe Medical Center to expand its facilities into the surrounding neighborhood.
The $110 million project, which includes a new five-story hospital, a four-level parking structure, office buildings and a park, will be built in three phases over the next 20 years, with the majority of work taking place over the next five years.
A coalition calling itself the Chico Avenues Neighborhood Association [CANA] hoped to squeeze from Enloe some concessions ranging from building the hospital elsewhere to getting surrounding infrastructure improvements. But CANA came up empty in the end as proponents pushed for no more costly mitigations or project delays.
Of the 70 or so people who testified on one side or the other, the majority were Enloe employees in favor of the expansion, including 10 off-duty helicopter nurses and pilots dressed in blue flight suits and sitting together to show their support for the project. The neighbors never had a chance of significantly altering Enloe’s plans because of the politics and emotions surrounding the issue, though a couple of council members tried unsuccessfully to add a few mitigations in favor of the neighborhood.
Council members Maureen Kirk and Steve Bertagna, who are running against each other for the 3rd District Butte County supervisor seat, voted to approve all five resolutions, as did Mayor Scott Gruendl, who is running for re-election.
Council members Andy Holcombe and Ann Schwab, who are not up for re-election, voted not to adopt the environmental-impact report but did vote in favor of the other four resolutions, including the development agreement between the medical center and the city.
The votes came after three years of meetings and a neighborhood charette, hosted by a third party, that prodded Enloe into reluctantly making some changes in its plans to accommodate neighbors. But more mitigation did not come forth on this night. It’s too costly and not Enloe’s problem, expansion promoters argued.
After a lengthy staff report by senior planner Brendan Vieg, and a consultant named Whit Manley, three Enloe representatives, former Butte College President Betty Dean, Enloe CEO Dan Neumeister and neurosurgeon Jeffrey Lobosky, delivered their side of the equation.
“We need it now,” Dean urged the council, calling the expansion a “critical need.”
Neumeister said the project was “about life,” adding, “All we ask is permission to move forward.”
He noted the concessions the hospital was willing to make, including the re-routing rather than closing of Magnolia Avenue, a bell tower, one instead of two parking structures, a park and traffic-calming efforts.
Kristine Mazzei, speaking for CANA, questioned the process and suggested the community was not fully engaged in the plans. Concerns included increased traffic, decreased safety and inadequate infrastructure improvements for the neighborhood.
“We are going to be giving up a lot in the next five years,” she said.
Enloe flight nurse Jennifer Humphries urged the council not to “let a small group with a big voice” influence its decision.
Kasey Merrill, an Enloe nurse and neighbor, told the council to “put some teeth into the development agreement” it was striking with Enloe.
“If we are going to have a premier hospital, let’s have a premier neighborhood around it,” she said, asking for curb, gutter and road improvements.
Suggestions to base rescue helicopter operations at Chico Municipal Airport to ease its noise impact on the neighbors were met with arguments from project supporters that the LifeFlight nurses—the best, they said, the hospital has—would lose their edge sitting around the airport “drinking coffee and eating doughnuts.”
Nurses, including Merrill, said they were offended that LifeFlight nurses were described as better than the rest.
Local economic developer Bob Linscheid said the expansion was the most important issue to come before the council in 20 years and urged its approval. His wife, Carol, an Enloe public-relations employee, agreed and asked the council to keep the helicopter based at the hospital.
In the end, the council approved the expansion, which includes some mitigating measures, though almost none of those attached by the Planning Commission, like a child-care facility. Enloe will pay $200,000 in infrastructure improvements directly associated with the expansion and pay to retrofit as many as 35 homes in the area with sound-reducing improvements to lessen the impact of the helicopter flights. Enloe will contribute another $250,000 toward a neighborhood-improvement plan and pay to landscape a fence to be built around its relocated oxygen tanks.
Merrill was not impressed with the council’s vote, saying it let Enloe off the hook.
“They have given no community benefits here,” she said.
The development agreement will be revisited annually by the council’s internal-affairs committee if it is indeed signed within the next few weeks as expected.