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Superior Court Ruling Upholding Denial of Overlook Helipad Produces Divergent Reactions on Two Sides of the Issue; Hospital Not Yet Decided on Appeal

Bob Faszczewski

Monday, February 25, 2013 • 6:58am

SUMMIT, NJ - Union County Superior Court Judge Karen Cassidy on Feb. 14 upheld the Summit Board of Adjustment’s denial of the application of Atlantic Health Systems to operate a helipad at Overlook Medical Center for receipt of stroke victims for emergency care.

Those on both sides of the issue, predictably, had very different reactions to the ruling. Also, Overlook and Atlantic Health Systems, the parent organization of the Summit hospital, have not as yet indicated whether they will appeal the ruling higher up in the New Jersey courts.

The city zoning board turned down the Atlantic Health application following hearings that lasted about a year, producing transcripts totaling an estimate of more than 3,000 pages. Testimony came from expert witnesses in everything from real estate valuation to the impact of noise levels.

On June 21, 2010 the Summit Board of Adjustment ruled the helipad application did not deserve favorable treatment just because the proposed landing area was attached to a hospital.

The decision to turn down the application was memorialized in a zoning body resolution in December, 2010.

In its appeal complaint, Atlantic Health said the zoning body ruled incorrectly in requiring the hospital to obtain a use variance to locate the helipad on its roof.

The complaint also charged that decision was arbitrary, capricious and unlawful.

Contacted last week by The Alternative Press, Dennis Galvin, the attorney for the Summit Board of Adjustment, said “I am happy about the decision. Judge Cassidy obviously recognized the good job done by the board of adjustment in reaching its decision.”

As for the possibility of an appeal of Cassidy’s decision succeeding, Galvin said, “Whenever you file an appeal there is a chance that it will succeed. However, I believe Judge Cassidy made a well-reasoned decision that will be difficult to overturn.”

However, there was a recent case in which the New Jersey Department of Transportation (DOT) granted permission for operation of a helipad despite rejection of that application by a municipality and the courts.

“I am upset that this unpublished opinion is being quoted so extensively,” Galvin said. “I don’t think unpublished opinions should be given so much weight. I also don’t believe that the decision made in that case was correct.”

Representatives of Overlook and Atlantic Health Systems did not agree with Cassidy’s decision.

“The court’s decision clearly is a disappointment,” said Alan Lieber, president of Overlook. “We continue to believe a helipad is a vital component of Overlook’s ability to serve as a center of excellence for neurosciences, as well as our ability to serve the people of Summit and the surrounding areas.”

A statement by Atlantic Health Systems said Atlantic and Overlook representatives will carefully review the opinion and consider their available options, including whether to appeal the court’s decision.

Representatives of Citizens Against the Helipad, however, said the group was “thrilled to be able to report” Cassidy’s denial of the Overlook application.

In a statement to The Alternative Press, the helipad opponents said, “Judge Cassidy held that the Summit Zoning Board was not arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable in its 2010 decision turning down the hospital’s request for a variance in order to construct a rooftop helipad.  Rejecting Atlantic Health’s arguments that the Zoning Board acted improperly, she found that the decision was validly made upon the evidence and the law.

This is a significant victory.  Overlook insisted that the Zoning Board’s decision reflected only parochial interests and that it should be overturned by an independent arbiter outside of the community.  Now a highly respected N.J. Superior Court judge has heard the case and found that the Board’s patient process—18 hearings, many witnesses and reams of evidence—was sound.  Judge Cassidy noted in her opinion the overwhelming 6-1 vote finding that the benefit to Overlook would have been minimal but that the detriment to our community would have been significant.”

The helipad opponents went on to say Atlantic Health Systems could further appeal to the appellate division of New Jersey Superior Court or use the New Jersey DOT decision in an attempt to overturn Cassidy’s decision. The opponents, like Galvin, believe they and the zoning board will continue to win in either of these scenarios.

They added, however, “the community has spoken, clearly. The city has spoken, clearly. Now a court has spoken clearly. At this point, continued legal action by Atlantic Health can only be seen as bullying of Summit and its residents.” 

The group called on Atlantic Health to heed the wishes of the community, adding of all the ways Overlook could support the healthcare needs of the area continuing “down the one path that hurts its own neighbors” is not one of them.

Should Overlook  continue to pursue a helipad, the opponents added, there would be new legal costs. They called upon their supporters for continued backing should further actions be necessary.

Medical officials at Overlook and Atlantic Healthcare referred back to Lieber’s statement when asked about possible further legal action.

They did, however, express disappointment in Cassidy’s decision and support for what they consider a critical need for a helipad.

“The decision is concerning,” said Dr. Robert Felberg, medical director of the stroke center at Overlook.

Felberg added, “Overlook is a national leader in neuroscience and a valuable asset to Summit and surrounding communities and other hospitals. A helipad would provide rapid and advanced care for patients who have had strokes. The first few minutes after a stroke are crucial to a patient’s survival and the use of a helipad would have a direct effect on the quality of this care and the outcome of patient survival.”

“Stroke care is the last decade has been transformative, “ added Jane Rubin, director of neuroscience for Atlantic Health Systems at Morristown Memorial Hospital and Overlook.

She pointed out that care for those who have had a stroke is crucial for several hours after the event and “out more than four hours after the event this care can be very costly.”

“Taking away access to a helipad would be taking away a critical access point where speed is so critical,” Rubin noted.

“During a stroke a patient is losing a few million brain cells a minute,” Felberg said. “Therefore, the first few minutes are critical. Helicopter transport enables the patient to get treatment as quickly as possible.”

This rapid transport is not an option when transporting patients by ambulance, he said, because ambulances can run into poor road conditions or traffic congestion.

“Helicopter transport would focus on a limited number of patients most in need of critical care, while at the same time expanding the range and quality of care available to these patients, “ Felberg added.

He noted, “When you have a stroke in order to get the best care it should not matter where you live, and helicopters allow access to this care.”

Replying to objections by helipad opponents to the noise of helicopter flights, Rubin said, “I can tolerate a little noise if it will save a life.”

She added that lawn mowers can make as much, if not, more, noise than helicopters.

Rubin also said one or two transports per week would be made to the Overlook helipad, “not a lot.”

In addition, she pointed out, many radiological studies of stroke can be made and transmitted via the Internet prior to transport of a patient.

“We are trying to minimize the inconvenience to patients and their families at the time they are making critical decisions,” the neuroscience director said.

She added, “We also do not want to inconvenience the hospital’s neighbors any more than is necessary.” 

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