Laura Coyle raised two boys in her subdivision and wants the same for her neighbors.
“They walked to school,” Coyle said of her sons. “We felt comfortable that when they were older, they could walk by themselves, so I was never concerned about them crossing Harrell’s Nursery to hang out with friends and things like that,” she said.
At the corner of County Road 540-A and Harrell’s Nursery Road, those idyllic memories dating to 2003 could be bulldozed to make way for a hospital.
The Polk County Planning Commission was scheduled to hold a rezoning hearing July 6 that could have determined the fate of plans by Nashville-based HCA Healthcare Inc. to build a hospital on 29 acres at 6015 Harrell’s Nursery Road, a plot currently zoned for homes. The hearing was rescheduled on Thursday for a later date.
Coyle, 48, was one of many residents within a 500-foot radius of the property who received notices in a letter from Polk County about the proposed project in their residential neighborhood.
Along the main road, there are two schools: George Jenkins High School and Valleyview Elementary straddling the former citrus grove like bookends and drawing students from multiple subdivisions as well as many generations.
Zooming out further, the acreage now zoned Residential Low-2 density is surrounded on two sides by subdivisions containing single family homes, including Highlands Ridge, Chatsworth and a third subdivision, Eagles Pointe. A fourth subdivision, Hickory Ridge, exists across the four lanes of County Road 540-A to box in the 29 acres with houses and schools.
In addition, the new hospital is within the vicinity of several other medical facilities either under construction or already in operation. There is Orlando Regional Health, which recently gained county approval for a facility on Lakeland Highlands Road; Bartow Regional on U.S. 98 just north of Bartow; and Watson Clinic urgent care, less than half a mile west of the proposed HCA facility. HCA also currently operates an emergency facility on South Florida Avenue across from the Merchants Walk shopping center. All are within a six-mile radius of the busy corner with a proposed land-use change.
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In response to the outcry from neighbors, a spokeswoman with HCA emailed a prepared statement on Wednesday.
"We appreciate the community’s interest in our zoning request and we want to clarify that no decision has been made to the future medical development of the land," said Debra McKell, director of media relations for HCA Healthcare's west Florida division.
"We are now working through the rezoning process in cooperation with the county as a first step," she said. "Our intent is to help support the growing healthcare needs in the area and this is a goal we will be prepared to discuss at a future public hearing.
"We look forward to continuing to work with the community to provide additional access to needed medical services," McKell said.
Erik Peterson, director of planning and development for Polk County, said Thursday that HCA had formally requested a continuance of the rezoning hearing and it has been rescheduled for Oct. 5.
"That will put them (Tentatively) before the November 1st Board of County Commissioners hearing for a final approval," Peterson said via email.
In terms of the proposed project, Peterson said the private hospital should only have traffic counts equal to an office building or similar to HCA’s Poinciana medical facility and therefore the intersection does not require a traffic signal.
HCA intends to use the facilities primarily for surgeries, so unlike a full trauma level hospital such as Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center, the traffic will be significantly less, he said.
'When you go to bed, the hospital is waking up'
Katharine Jonsson is another mom with two preschool-age kids living in a subdivision near the proposed hospital. She grew up in the area developed over the past three decades and she is a registered nurse at LRHMC. She said she knows from experience, “You don’t get to choose who goes to a hospital.”
She wants her kids, who will be attending the elementary school in a couple of years, to have the same opportunity she had to walk to classes, without having a hospital next to it.
Jonsson, 31, said hospitals receive emergency vehicles, deliveries of food, prescription drugs and medical supplies in addition to staff and patients coming and going. On a narrow 30 mph street, she worries trucks along Harrell’s Nursery Road will jam up a roadway ill-equipped to handle heavy vehicles.
A Polk County Development Review Committee report shows trip counts comparable to a 135,000-square-foot government office building. Also, HCA would have to improve Harrell's Nursery Road along its frontage, Peterson said.
The hospital would have two entrances, one on each road, Peterson said.
A hospital is also a 24-hour operation, Jonsson said. “When you go to bed, the hospital is waking up. It never sleeps, there is constantly comings and goings all hours of the night, evenings, weekends. It just never stops.”
Having such an operation next to a school “is crazy,” she said.
She also called the rezoning process “a disservice to the community” because the public meeting (originally set for July 6) is only just being held about land that had been sold nearly a year ago in August.
“It is such short notice it feels like they have already made a decision almost,” Jonsson said.
Jonsson and Coyle are among 749 residents as of Thursday who have signed a petition at Change.org to help convince the planning commission not to recommend the zoning change for a hospital.
The growing group of residents that are against the hospital have set up a Facebook page entitled: No Hospital at Harrell’s Nursery/540-A. They have printed signs saying No Hospital and are encouraging neighbors to attend the planning commission meeting when the rezoning is brought up.
The signs are popping up along the streets in the potentially impacted neighborhoods as a second batch of signs are due from the printer any day.
Property sold by Grady Judd's family
In the staff report produced by the DRC, the applicant is listed as Jo Thacker, Nelson Mullins, Riley & Scarbourough, LLP.
“Staff is recommending approval because we believe that a modest sized hospital can be placed on this property in a manner that it is compatible with the surrounding residential community, the nearby schools, the environmental limitations, and the available infrastructure,” the report said.
The current landowner is June 35 LLC. Among the managing members of the LLC are Samuel N. Haven, CEO of HCA, state records show. Other HCA executives listed are Chris Wyatt, senior vice president and controller, and John M. Franck II, vice president, legal/secretary.
The 29-acre parcel was recently sold to June 35 LLC on Aug. 19 by Grady Judd’s family for $2.2 million, according to Polk County Property Appraiser records.
The sellers include Wheeler Citrus, with the active member being Grady C. Judd Jr. along with his sister Ann Lee Fagundo with the Grady Judd SR trust.
Sheriff Grady Judd said by phone his family was talking to attorneys who represented the buyer and had no knowledge a hospital was planned for the site because his family was dealing with a "blind buyer."
"That's our homestead that we've owned for decades," he said, addressing resident concerns. "When and who we sell it to is our business." He said the 29 acres was owned by three entities; Wheeler Citrus, his property and his now-deceased father.
Two years ago, the attorneys for the buyer had wanted the sale contingent on a zoning change, but Judd said he had turned down that offer. The attorneys reached out again about a year later and the price and terms were what he wanted.
"I asked who was buying this and wanted to know what they were going to do with it," he said. But he was told by the attorneys that was confidential. The first he heard a hospital was planned came after calls from the media.
The county commissioner who represents the area is Commissioner George Lindsey, a real estate developer. He was contacted but did not return an email request for comment.
Judd said he is not planning to get involved with the decisions by the planning commission nor would he speak with the commissioners about the property.
"I did not encourage anybody," he said.
Once the planning commission reviews the DRC recommendation, the panel could recommend the Polk County Commission approve the zoning change.
Coyle disagrees with Peterson about his comparison of the proposed hospital in her neighborhood to the HCA Poinciana facility because it started with one building and has added multiple additional buildings.
The Polk County DRC report said Institutional 1 zoning for the site would allow up to 900,000 square feet for 541 beds for the proposed medical facility in Lakeland. The report also includes a potential heliport.
Peterson said at a surgery center, a heliport would not be expected right away nor would it be in use very often but could help save the lives of patients who needed a specialist in Tampa or Orlando.
Without a dedicated heliport, pilots would have to find a landing site nearby and ambulances would have to take the patient to the field or parking lot to be airlifted, he said.
If the new land use is approved by the county, HCA would also have to submit more detailed plans for the land and a more comprehensive traffic study, Peterson said.
“They’re saying one thing, but you know once that zoning change goes through kind of all bets are off the table,” Coyle said.
“They want the zoning change,” she said. “Once they have that they can do pretty much anything within those parameters of very little to something pretty substantial.”
Paul Nutcher can be reached at PNutcher@gannett.com.
This article originally appeared on The Ledger: HCA looks to build surgery center among homes, schools on 540-A