Frustration built for the group, with some filing out of the meeting early as lawyers from CRR and Valley spent most of the night wrangling over issues surrounding the evidence that the objectors sought to submit to the board, as officials consider a master plan amendment that would allow the hospital to nearly double its size on the 15-acre site.
John Hersperger, testifying on behalf of CRR, attempted to present documents and testimony outlining what the group contends are inconsistencies in Valley's past and recent statements on the demand for hospital services in the region.
But legal challenges to the types of documents CRR is allowed to submit as evidence for board consideration, as well as questions about the qualifications needed to present the information as a witness, largely constrained Hersperger’s testimony to one question, posed to planning officials sitting on the stage of the Benjamin Franklin Middle School auditorium.
“What benefit does the village get, what benefit does the county get if there is this overabundance of supply?”
CRR submitted documents culled from an 850-page 2011 state Appellate Court ruling allowing the reopening of Pascack Valley Hospital, which Hersperger said he obtained through a records request.
During an attempt to block the reopening, Valley argued it would add to an excess of hospital beds in the region and ultimately hurt the local health care market. John Downes, a consultant from Stroudwater Associates, testified to the planning board earlier this year that the need at the Ridgewood facility is projected to continue unchanged despite the reopening of the nearby hospital.
Valley attorney Jonathan Drill objected that the group was relying on already outdated figures, and that Hersperger, a former land use attorney who no longer practices law, was not qualified to testify and answer board questions on the numbers.
“I think people are extremely frustrated by the process,” CRR President Peter McKenna said Wednesday. “Part of that is a lack of understanding on the layman’s part about the legalities, and the amount of time spent on legal wrangling.”
Board members themselves grappled with the evidentiary issues, going back and forth on the relevance of the statements introduced by CRR. But Mayor Paul Aronsohn, also a planning board member, remarked that the apparent contradictions in Valley's statements represented a "credibility issue" relevant for the board to consider, prompting a quick response from Drill.
The attorney contended that the CRR evidence could only be used to examine the credibility of Downes, who has already been dismissed as a witness and, he said, couldn't be reasonably called back for additional questioning. It would be “illegal,” Drill said, for the board to consider the credibility of the hospital itself.
“Do you know how crazy that sounds?” Aronsohn asked, drawing a roar of applause from the crowd.
Gail Price, the board’s attorney, explained that officials are limited in what they can consider, with issues like bed count laying outside their jurisdiction. As part of the “quasi-judicial” process, she said, the board needed to hear and address objections to the credibility of evidence in order to ensure the record is clear if reviewed in the future.
"This is a legislative hearing, and as far as I'm concerned it's as wide open as you want it to be," CRR attorney Michael Kates responded, underscoring a disagreement on the basic nature of the process.
Drill was ready with court cases he cited to the contrary.
Price asked that Kates file additional paperwork this week on the documents to be used as evidence, in preparation for the next board meeting Oct. 29.
Plans for that meeting remained unclear Wednesday as CRR leaders continued to confer on strategy, McKenna said.
The group’s leader expressed deep frustration about odds seemingly stacked against CRR, who had lacked the resources from their grassroots funding for formal representation in the beginning of the process. And the evidentiary requirements present challenges in matching the experts who have represented the hospital, he said.
“If that’s the law of the land, I’m afraid of what Ridgewood’s going to look like in ten years,” McKenna said. “It makes it virtually impossible for a grassroots effort of residents to stop anything.”