The lawsuit between the City of Madison and Morgan Medical Center over a zoning dispute will drag on into 2022.
At the last hearing on Wednesday, Dec. 22, Morgan County Superior Court Judge Stephen Bradley heard arguments and will soon rule on whether or not to grant the city’s request for a trial by jury.
“The court has taken the matter under advisement and will rule after it reviews the file and the deposition testimony,” said City Attorney Jim Carter after Wednesday’s hearing.
Carter and Hospital Attorney Kathy Zickert presented discovery evidence and arguments for Judge Bradley to consider regarding their respective cases over transforming the old Morgan Memorial Hospital building into an upscale drug rehabilitation facility. Bradley will decide whether or not the case warrants a trial by jury.
Zickert argued that since the hospital authority is a public entity established in 1957 for the purpose of public health, that they are exempt from the city’s zoning ordinance before selling the property.
“We are not subject to zoning law,” said Zickert. The authority was not subject to it then, is not subject to it now, and will never be subject to it as a matter of law.”
Carter argued that it would be “criminal” for the city to concede automatic approval for a prospective buyer without going through the conditional use process required under the city’s current zoning ordinance.
“The issue at the hearing was whether or not the Authority’s case should be heard by the court without a jury, or whether there were questions of fact for a jury to decide. The City’s position is that because the Authority is not subject to local zoning laws, the City should be forced to certify that a residential drug rehabilitation and education program DATEP on the old hospital site would comply with the zoning law. The City refuses to provide that certificate because operating a hospital of any kind on the former hospital property requires a conditional use permit under the zoning law. For that reason, any non-governmental entity who would propose to operate a DATEP on the old hospital property would require a conditional use permit,” explained Carter.
“The City’s position is that the only means of transferring the right to use the former hospital for a DATEP would be to transfer a legal non-conforming use to a purchaser. The City contends that because the Authority never operated a DATEP program on the former property that it cannot transfer any such use to a purchaser. The City contends that there is no law under which the Authority can transfer its exemption from zoning to a private entity.”
Carter argued that any immunity granted to hospital authorities does not apply to a drug rehabilitation facility.
The zoning dispute between the hospital authority and the City of Madison began two years ago when the hospital requested a certification letter from the city to move forward with selling the old Morgan Memorial Hospital property to Flashpoint Recovery to transform the old hospital into a resort-like drug rehab. The dispute centers around the city’s zoning ordinance and whether or not a drug rehabilitation hospital can operate out of the old Morgan Memorial Hospital building without a zoning change or conditional use permit.
The hospital filed a lawsuit against the City of Madison on July 15 to ask the court to settle the matter.
According to Madison Mayor Fred Perriman, the hospital authority and the Flashpoint Recovery owners are attempting to wrongfully bypass the city’s zoning requirements by pressing city leaders for a “certification letter” declaring a drug rehabilitation hospital an automatic allowable use for the property.
“We believe we owe it to our citizens to defend our right to have public input on whether or not to allow a drug rehabilitation hospital to operate in the P1 district,” said Perriman in a previous interview.
Hospital leaders object to the City’s characterization, and believe they are within their rights to sell the old hospital to a drug rehabilitation company.
“It’s disappointing the city has chosen to create the false narrative that the Hospital Authority is doing ‘an end around’ to circumvent zoning laws. This could not be further from the truth,” said Sarah Burbach, vice chair of the Morgan Medical Center Hospital Authority, in a previous interview. “From our very first outreach more than two years ago, we have approached our discussions with the city in good faith and with a strong desire to do the right thing for our community. We are hopeful the court’s decision will allow the sale to move forward in a way that benefits taxpayers and protects the interests of those who live nearby.”
Judge Bradley is expected to render a ruling on the trial by jury request after the new year.