Oak Bluffs Town Board Grants Hospital Request for Special Permit to Construct Larger Facility in Eastville Area

The Oak Bluffs zoning board of appeals last night unanimously approved a special permit for the $42 million renovation and expansion of the Martha's Vineyard Hospital. The decision will allow the size of the overall campus and the height of the main building to exceed what is normally allowed under town zoning bylaws.

In approving the special permit, the board added several conditions that will limit the overall height of the hospital and restrict how patients can access a rooftop garden that overlooks a residential area. Another condition requires project proponents to provide more detailed site plans to the board that show exact measurements of height and distance.

At the start of the two-hour meeting, architect Daniel W. Cress said the current combined size of the existing hospital buildings in the hospital care district is about 140,000 square feet - already well beyond the 100,000-square-foot maximum allowed under town zoning. The maximum building height for buildings in the hospital care district is 35 feet.

The special permit will allow the hospital to expand to about 220,000 square feet, and also will allow for a two-story addition with steeply-pitched roofs that peak above the 35-foot mark. Plans also called for a special tower at the main entrance to the hospital to reach a height of 55 feet, but the hospital agreed to decrease its height to no more than 50 feet.

Mr. Cress said the project officials could have designed a flat roof at a height of 29 feet - which is within zoning regulations - but felt it was more aesthetically pleasing to build a pitched roof and entrance tower.

"We thought this [design] fit better with the neighborhood. This is a very large building, and if it had a flat roof or a gradually sloping roof it would seem like a big box," he said.

Although board members discussed broader aspects of the project such as its impact on the neighborhood and its overall size, they largely focused on two specific aspects of the design: the 55-foot entrance tower and the 15,000-square-foot open air rooftop garden planned for the second story of the patient wing.

Chairman Gail M. Barmakian explained that although the town zoning regulations allow for a building to exceed a height of 35 feet in the health care district by special permit, the regulations also seemed clear that no structure, under any circumstances, can exceed 50 feet.

"I don't think we can just look the other way and ignore the regulations," Ms. Barmakian said. "This is a very sensitive area, and we have to think about what this will look like from the road and also from the water."

Board member Kris Chvatal said he worried the tower would reflect sunlight or be lit up during the evenings. "I hope this does not become some sort of beacon," he said. "We know some architects like to light their work."

Mr. Cress said the tower was an important component of the plan because it will mark the main entrance to the facility and also provide natural lighting into the entrance hall. When board members asked if the tower could be reduced by five feet so that the building would comply with the zoning regulations, Mr. Cress resisted, explaining that it would force the removal of an entire group of windows.

But when the board agreed to a condition limiting the maximum height of the new hospital to 50 feet, Mr. Cress said the plans could be changed so the height of the tower would be lowered.

Only a handful of residents spoke during a brief public comment period, including Windemere Road resident Marcia Graham, who said she was concerned about an invasion of privacy by patients walking in the rooftop garden. Her home is less than 40 feet away from the corner of the hospital where the garden is slated to be built.

"I'm a little worried about someone being able to literally look down from above into my house," she said.

After hearing Ms. Graham's comments, several board members questioned whether the rooftop garden was necessary at all.

Hospital chief executive officer Timothy Walsh explained that the rooftop garden was a vital component to the project. Studies have shown that such gardens may have a soothing and therapeutic effect on recovering patients, and the garden also will conserve energy and heat because it provides a natural layer of insulation, he said.

Mr. Cress explained that access to the rooftop garden was limited, and that patients would have to walk along a paved pathway far removed from the edge of the building. Even if they wanted to, they could not stray from the path because large planters would block their path, he said.

The board eventually agreed to a condition limiting the use of the rooftop garden only to patients, and select employees assisting those patients.

Following the meeting, Mr. Walsh said he felt the conditions's imposed by the board were fair and acceptable.

The hospital project still needs approval from the town planning board and conservation commission before construction can start.