Monday may have been the longest day of the year, but for Ridgewood Planning Board members voting on the Valley Hospital proposal, it felt like the longest night.
In a 6-1 vote, the board approved a master plan amendment to allow the Valley Hospital to double its facilities on its existing site. Outside, hundreds of people, unable to get inside, shouted and chanted throughout the meeting, several times delaying the proceedings and resulting in one arrest.
With only member, Morgan Hurley, voting against the proposal, the board approved the amendment amid loud boos and applause from those in the auditorium, which was filled to capacity with an overflow crowd outside.
"I've listened for three years to experts, [Concerned Residents of Ridgewood spokesman Paul Gould], and residents. I believe we can have a modern hospital facility," Chairman David Nicholson said before his yes vote. He called increased setbacks, buffers and other alterations to the original plan before the board justifications for his vote.
Since the board took up an amendment to increase Valley's building mass to nearly 1.2 million square feet on its 15.4-acre facility in 2006, the deliberations have dominated local politics. After two drafts, three experts and three years of hearings, the board approved the measure last night. However, it is likely to be months or even years before construction begins. Opponents could also appeal the decision in court.
Held at the hot George Washington Middle School without air conditioning, the meeting's venue became part of the story. Like most large-scale hearings, last night's meeting was originally scheduled at the bigger Benjamin Franklin Middle School across town (and next to the hospital). On Friday, board secretary Barbara Carlton announced the location change due to the upcoming Project Graduation at Benjamin Franklin.
The situation was compounded yesterday when Carlton announced parking at the adjacent West Side Presbyterian Church would not be permitted due to further scheduling conflicts. Many residents walked, carpooled or were dropped off only to find access to the meeting barred at 7 p.m. as the occupancy limit had been reached. No video simulcast option existed—as is the case for crowded Village Council meetings.
Councilman Paul Aronoshn—who will deliberate on the matter with his colleagues in the future—attended the meeting.
"The venue was wrong. It was too hot. It was too small. Despite any logistical challenges, all residents should have been permitted to participate in this important meeting either with a seat inside or via video hook up," he wrote in an e-mail.
With crowds spilling onto the street, North Monroe Street was blocked off from Godwin to West Ridgewood Avenues.
Ridgewood police were assisted in crowd control by officers from Wyckoff, Midland Park, Glen Rock, Bergen County police and the Bergen County Sheriff's Department. Ridgewood Police Captain Thomas Landers confirmed the arrest but could not elaborate on its details.
Preceding a vote, the board first decided against seeking further study and making proposal amendments.
After struggling to speak over the crowd noise inside and outside the auditorium, Nicholson, Mayor David Pfund, Councilman-elect Tom Riche, and board members Nancy Bigos, Charles Nalbantian and Anne Ward voted for the amendment.
Many members said expert testimony—which evolved over the three years—draft modifications, and the desire for a modern hospital facility outweighed the negatives.
Ward called the vote "an opportunity to create something special."
Bigos said, "I want what's best for all the residents, and I think superior medical care" is necessary.
Casting the only no vote, Hurley said the proposal was "far bigger than what I thought I'd vote for." He said if the hospital had worked with residents, he could have approved the plan.
The yes vote was one of the outgoing mayor's last decisions on council.
"It's a sad day in the village when we have to call the county police to come in here," Pfund said. "It's quite a divisive issue, and it has gone on long enough at this stage. I've seen many divisive issues, and when they get resolved the people get back together as a community. I hope we can get there."
While on the board, Riche campaigned and was elected to council in May. Despite being a board member who was unable to comment publicly, Riche was endorsed by activist group the Concerned Residents of Ridgewood.
Before voting for the initiative, Riche said there would be future times for the public to weigh in. On the endorsement, Riche said he never asked for it.
"Being a board member and a candidate were two separate and distinct things. I'll continue to monitor this issue as a council member," Riche said.
Now a part of the master plan, the project needs Village Council to rewrite zoning ordinances and approve site plans and building applications before the first phase of the project can start.
Several residents left the hearing before a final vote citing frustration. Don Schwenker disagreed with Ward's decision, which referenced nursing staff who endorsed the plans.
"I'd like to add that the Planning Board's comments—that they really listened to the Valley nurses in their decision—made me sick (goes against experts, they are just paid employees, paid to say this)," he wrote in an e-mail. "I will now go to Hackensack Hospital, unless it's a life or death situation, which would mean it's not my decision to make."
Lisa Baney requested the board consider other options in her testimony, which included having the hospital look elsewhere for new facilities.
"Before, I talked to [late Councilwoman] Anne Zusy, and we wanted to have 'less space in your face,'" she said, adding that when the board ruled out that Valley should seek facilities outside of Ridgewood based on Valley's financial situation and the board's lack of jurisdiction, it missed "the big picture."
Bob McCarthy took issue with the many Valley supporters in attendance who he said weren't residents.
"The fact that Valley is here to make it seem like they have support—I can't stand it," he said.
CRR spokesman Gould, who heard loud cheers after exiting the middle school, said the decision was not a "vindication" of the Renewal Project.
"The vote is a direct result of the polished web of influence that Valley has spun throughout the region and the fact that the Planning Board so severely limited its scope of investigation to 'how do we make it happen...' Gould said in a written statement. "The will of the people WILL ultimately prevail, and the fight now moves on to the Village Council."
Gould also acknowledged Hurley for "being brave enough to say the truth..."
Thanking the board for its "exhaustive efforts," hospital spokesperson Megan Fraser said, "Over the past three-and-half years at more than 35 meetings, board members reviewed research, expert testimony, and the input of hundreds of residents. Their work led to a project that evolved over time... that is both responsive to our neighbors and the hospital's needs and will benefit patients of our community for generations to come."
Fraser pointed to a building removal and rebuilding project Valley undertook in the 1980s as assurance that it will work with the schools "to outline how we will plan, manage and complete construction in a safe and healthy environment."
The new Village Council—including Aronsohn, Riche, Deputy Mayor Keith Killion and Councilwoman-elect Bernadette Walsh (who attended the meeting)—will deliberate further on the issue after its new members take office July 1.