SUMMIT, NJ — A three-judge panel ruled to allow a restricted-use helipad at Summit’s Overlook Medical Center, a designated stroke center where regional patients requiring special care are directed, confirming a decision made in April 2014 by the New Jersey Department of Transportation.
The court battle, Summit officials said, ultimately revolved around the concept of “home rule” — the city’s right to govern itself, by accepting or rejecting the license for a helipad — rather than any conflict with Overlook, or parent company American Health Systems.
“This really didn’t end up about us versus the hospital. It was really just the city on home rule,” said Dr. Robert Rubino, Common Council President. “Ultimately, we didn’t prevail. On the advice of counsel, they thought that the Department of Transportation, and the state and federal aviation act, ultimately trumped home rule. And there’s a couple of other cases that were settled during this process that kind of helped set the stage for the ruling to go against us.”
The appellate court decided Summit’s home rule was not violated, according to court documents, because the authority of the decision ultimately lies with the Department of Transportation commissioner. The court also found that the Department of Transportation had considered the local municipality’s zoning concerns, but that the helipad would “have a positive effect on aviation development and a neutral effect on existing air traffic patterns.”
In response, at a special meeting on Monday, Aug. 17, the Summit Common Council decided that Summit would not appeal the decision, and that the city’s resources are best spent elsewhere.
“So at this point, we have to decide do we spend more of the taxpayers’ money litigating this?” said Rubino. “Or do we just understand that we’re very unlikely to win on appeal, and look forward and make sure that the implementation of the helipad — and our partnership with Overlook — continues to be a mutually beneficial one? And that we support the hospital systems which we love and treasure.”
The appellate court’s ruling, in conjunction with Summit’s decision to not appeal to a higher court, ends a six-year battle over the hospital’s ability to install a helipad.
Overlook’s parent company, American Health Systems, first filed for site approval of a helipad in 2009, according to court documents, because it would provide easier access to patients in need of medical assistance.
After it didn’t receive local approval, American Health Systems went to the Department of Transportation, which approved the license to a helipad “subject to certain conditions.”
The medical company agreed that Overlook would not seek designation as a trauma center, would limit its helipad use to air transport of patients, and would follow certain flight paths and operational procedures.
But Summit argued these conditions were not enforceable, according to court documents, because federal and state law preempted Summit’s enforcement powers on aviation.
In an earlier decision in Union County Superior Court, Judge Karen M. Cassidy wrote the lack of enforceability made the case problematic, and that “legitimate health and safety concerns that were proven at the hearing could not legitimately be enforced through conditions,” according to court documents.
Summit also said the Department of Transportation had not held a public hearing about the helipad, had not properly addressed local concerns, and that the organization’s decision clashed with Summit’s ability to govern itself.
But earlier this month, the appellate court overturned Cassidy, potentially ending the six-year legal battle. The three-judge panel decided that conducting a public hearing had not been necessary, and that American Health Systems had presented “substantial evidence regarding the benefits that the helistop would provide to its patients,” according to court documents.
Now that the decision has been made, said Summit officials, they look forward to continuing their partnership with Overlook, a hospital which is a “jewel” of Summit.
“The council’s advice was we’re not going to win, and at that point we have to react and decide where our energies are best spent,” said Rubino. “The bottom line is, we look forward to, at this point, putting the past behind us and working with what is one of the true jewels of Summit, which is Overlook Medical Hospital.”