WINCHESTER — Plans to convert the former Winchester Memorial Hospital on Cork Street into a senior-living center continue as city officials seek dismissal of a lawsuit aimed at derailing the project.
A demurrer hearing in the case, which was filed in April against City Council and the city of Winchester, was held Thursday afternoon in Winchester Circuit Court. The city asked Judge Alex Iden to dismiss the suit based on its alleged lack of merit.
Charles Robinson and Arlene Torbett of South Stewart Street, Mark Schroeder of West Cork Street and Joseph Kalbach of Roszel Road claim City Council and the city of Winchester acted “unreasonably, arbitrarily and capriciously” when council approved a series of zoning waivers that would allow Chicago-based Healthcare Development Partners (HDP) to build a 193-bed residential center for seniors at 333 W. Cork St.
The neighbors are asking that council’s decision be overturned and that the city be blocked from taking further action on HDP’s renovation plans.
The project, first introduced in November, was the subject of seven public hearings before City Council and the Winchester Planning Commission. It faced significant opposition from dozens of neighbors who said the complex would be too big, cause traffic congestion, have inadequate parking and be out of context with its residential surroundings.
On March 26, council voted 5-3 to approve the zoning waivers in the form of a conditional-use permit (CUP) after HDP made a series of city-requested concessions that reduced the 322,121-square-foot building’s size by 22,000 square feet, added additional landscaping, put restrictions on delivery vehicles and schedules, provided additional satellite parking and more.
“It was not a rash decision,” attorney Heather Bardot, who is defending the city in the lawsuit, said during Thursday’s hearing. “Reasonable people came to a conclusion based on what was before them.”
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Arin Sommer, countered that council did not properly consider the scope of the project’s impact on nearby residents who may suffer from lower property values, increased traffic congestion and reduced on-street parking.
Bardot said the alleged negative impacts cited by neighbors are “possible, speculative, maybe in the future ... There are no allegations factually at all.”
Sommer also said there were conversations, emails and information exchanges between city officials and HDP before and during the public approval process. As of Thursday, Sommer said he did not have access to the full record of those communications.
“We don’t know what isn’t recorded in the record,” he said.
Winchester attorney Ty Lawson, who is representing HDP’s interest in the case, accused Sommer of trying to create an alternate record to bolster the plaintiffs’ claims.
“The record is what it is,” Lawson said.
The court’s role, he said, is to focus strictly on the public record to ensure proper procedures were followed throughout the four-month public hearing and approval process.
“We ask that it not just be dismissed, but dismissed with prejudice,” Lawson said about the lawsuit.
Sommer said the case should be allowed to continue to the discovery phase, when he can request access to all of the exchanges between HDP and city officials.
“We don’t believe a decision on the merits at this stage is appropriate,” he told Iden.
Iden ended the 60-minute hearing by saying he would take the matter under advisement and issue an opinion. He did not say when his opinion would be published.
Following the hearing, Lawson said HDP continues to prepare a site plan for the former hospital, which must be approved by the city before construction of the senior-living center begins.
“We’re moving forward,” he said.