Summit helipad battle rages on

Overlook Hospital asks New Jersey Dept. of Transportation to ‘fast track’

File Photo The local zoning board, siding to concerns and complaints from Summit residents, denied the application for a helipad at Overlook Hospital, but the medical facility is now asking the NJ Department of Transportation for permission.
File Photo
The local zoning board, siding to concerns and complaints from Summit residents, denied the application for a helipad at Overlook Hospital, but the medical facility is now asking the NJ Department of Transportation for permission.

SUMMIT – Although many thought Overlook Hospital’s quest for a rooftop helipad at their facility in Summit was a dead issue, it has apparently taken flight once again.

The helipad would be designed for hospital-to-hospital transport of patients requiring advanced neurological care, according to an Overlook hospital spokesperson. The helipad is needed to reduce transportation delays for stroke patient in need of highly specialize care, which is estimated at five to nine patients each month.

However, neither residents nor members of the city council want a helipad in Summit and intend to fight such a move by the hospital.
The Summit Common Council voted unanimously recently to have City Solicitor Thomas Scrivo officially defend the city’s position against the helipad becoming a fixture at the hospital.

Council members expressed concern for the safety of the area surrounding the hospital, noting it was densely populated. They also did not want to see the time invested by the zoning board several years ago merely cast aside.

In 2009 Overlook Hospital applied to the city zoning board for approval to build the helipad, but their application was turned down the following year in December. The medical facility appealed the decision and in February 2013 Union County Judge Karen Cassidy ruled in favor of the zoning board, upholding their decision to reject the hospital’s application.

In turn, Overlook Hospital appealed Cassidy’s decision but also went a step further, applying to the New Jersey Department of Transportation for approval to fast track the building of the helipad so patients have access to their top neuroscience department. State approval by the NJ DOT could override local zoning board rejection and pave the way for the hospital to obtain the license required to build the helipad.

Robert E. Mulcahy III, chair of the Overlook Medical Center Advisory Board, Board of Trustees, Atlantic Health Systems, explained that the hospital filed the application with the state Department of Transportation after its application to the zoning board was rejected. Aware that the community believes this is an attempt to circumvent the ruling by the zoning board, Mulcahy said Overlook Hospital has made “tremendous efforts” to ensure the concerns of the community were addressed, but these efforts “continue to be lost in the debate.”

Even though Mulcahy said the hospital is willing to put restrictions on the volume of flights and other aspects of the use of the helipad, residents remained in opposition to the move, rejecting even occasional flights in life threatening situations.

Mulcahy pointed out that the hospital’s request for the helipad actually is not a Summit issue but a regional transportation and medical one. He also felt while resident’s may see the zoning board’s decision as the final word, they have not considered the fact that while they have immediate access to Overlook’s award-winning Neuroscience Center, others do not.

He also pointed out that as of November, 35 Summit residents came to the hospitals emergency department for stroke-related care, or six-percent of the facility’s emergency stroke population. The remaining 572, or 94 percent, came from outside the city.
In addition to those patients who come to the emergency room for treatment of a stroke related illness, an additional 237 patient were transferred to Overlook’s neuroscience intensive care unit from other hospitals.

Thirty of those were transported by air from hospitals more than 20 miles away. Those air transfers were required to land in neighboring towns, but this added critical time before life-saving treatment could be performed.

Mulcahy felt residents needed to look at the fact the helipad is about the medical needs of the wider regional community, one the NJ DOT “is in a much better position to assess, given the lives at stake.”

The grass roots group Citizens Against the Helipad predicted in May that Overlook would turn to the NJ DOT, admitting they were disappointed but not shocked by the latest turn of events. In fact, they fully intend to do all they can to fight the move by Overlook hospital seeking approval from the NJ DOT.

At issue is the fact that Summit is a densely populated area on a direct flight line of planes heading to Newark International airport.
There is concern that planes getting ready to land at Newark could collide with helicopters heading to Overlook Hospital, or a helicopter could have a malfunction and crash into a neighborhood.

On Nov. 27, Overlook sent out a press release explaining that an application had been filed with the NJ DOT to build the helipad. They further noted the hospital felt that keeping their stroke staff intact was essential to keeping its national reputation and provide the best possible medical care.

A 30-day public comment period by the NJ DOT on the issue began Dec. 12. Residents wishing to express their concerns on the matter can do so and those comments will be taken into consideration prior to a final decision, according to a spokesperson at the NJ DOT.