Highlands Board of Commissioners tabled a request at Thursday’s monthly meeting from HCA Healthcare to supply water and sewer to a proposed workforce-housing development for Highlands-Cashiers Hospital until some issues regarding future use are resolved.
Commissioner Amy Patterson said there is no disagreement regarding the need for workforce housing or that the design of the proposed development along Buck Creek Road is a good one. She said the problem is that if HCA sells the property, there’s no guaranty it will remain workforce housing for the hospital.
“We don’t give water outside of Highlands except for things that are good for our community,” said Patterson. “What’s to stop HCA from putting this in, and then deciding that for financial reasons they need to sell it off and we’re stuck providing water and sewer to noncitizens of the Town of Highlands for somebody else’s benefit.”
She added that if HCA sold the property and it was turned into VRBO’s for example, it would no longer benefit the Town.
“I don’t disagree with the concept, but I can’t give you a yes or no answer without some sort of agreement with HCA about what can and cannot be done,” said Patterson. “That thing needs to stay workforce housing for the hospital forever and ever.”
HCH CEO Tom Neal said he appreciates Patterson’s concerns and said HCA’s goal is to continue delivering quality healthcare, not sell off assets for financial reasons.
“We’re giving up a very prime piece of property,” said Neal. “We could in fact, sell it off today if we were looking to generate revenue or generate capital, but that’s not our interest here. Our interest is in supporting the Hospital, supporting growth, and supporting success here.”
He added that plans will include provisions tying the developer into supporting workforce housing specifically for healthcare.
“I don’t know if I have the right answer you’re looking for, all I can tell you in that we share in that and were looking to put the same type of provisions in the ground lease to protect it so that it’s only used for healthcare workforce housing.”
Highlands Town Attorney Jay Coward said that if the Town wants to stop supplying water, they can turn it off.
“Highlands can continue to provide those amenities if it wants to, and it can be contingent upon being for hospital-support purposes only,” said Coward. “If it is not, it could be cut off. The water and sewer could be cut off and that would be the end of it.”
“The people in this situation who are innocent would have their water cut off. We would never do that,” said Patterson.
She said the town didn’t cut Chestnut Hill off when the hospital sold it and they wouldn’t do it if it happened again, but she doesn’t want the town to be put in that position.
“Been there, done that, learned our lesson,” she said.
According to Public Works Director Lamar Nix, the story about water and sewer to the Highlands-Cashiers Hospital and the town’s involvement is a long one.
When the hospital outgrew what is now the Peggy Crosby Center, a tract of land was purchased off US 64 east where the Hospital and Chestnut Hill Retirement community now stand.
The first issue was water.
An easement was agreed upon with the Dewey family who owned adjacent land and the hospital. The plan was for the hospital to dig a well, pipe the water to the top of the mountain on the Dewey property where a water tank was erected and then gravity feed it back down to the hospital. All was well in that regard.
But what about sewage?
It soon became apparent that digging numerous septic tanks was not reasonable for a hospital complex. Consequently, an agreement was made with the town to extend its sewer to the hospital property and to pipe and process its effluent.
Then, Highlands hit a dry period and the hospital was worried that its wells would dry up.
So, another agreement was made to pipe water to the hospital in addition to the sewer connection.
The reason was simple: though outside the town limits, such an arrangement would benefit the citizens of Highlands who needed a hospital and water and sewer were paramount.
Meanwhile, the Chestnut Hill property, which was owned by the hospital, was to be part of the hospital community offering individual residences and assisted living apartments; the idea being, that people could segue into the Eckerd Living Center which is a skilled nursing facility when needed.
Since it was part of the hospital tract and basically an arm of the hospital, Chestnut Hill got water and sewer, too.
Then in the early 2000s, the hospital needed money, so the Chestnut Hill complex was carved out and sold.
The result, of course, was that a private entity was now hooked up to the town’s water and sewer.
This is what Commissioner Patterson said cannot be allowed to happen again.
She said she wants a guarantee in writing, that HCA will not sell off its workforce housing complex for any reason; and that it will always be a part of the hospital.
“If not, 10 years from now if HCA decides to abandon the hospital, we will be stuck giving water and sewer to something that isn’t part of our community,” she said. “We have to work out what is best for our community.”
Dr. Patti Wheeler, who is the only person currently involved with Highlands-Cashiers Hospital with decades of history, said she hoped the two parties could enter into an arrangement with good faith.
“There are no guarantees in life, I am evidence of that,” she said, “but your request sounds reasonable.”
Commissioner Donnie Calloway said approving HCA’s request sets a precedent for other requests for water and sewer.
“We all know there’s another piece of property that’s being looked at by a group for employee housing that also wants water and sewer,” said Calloway. “Once we start this, where are we going to cut it off? How are we going to stop it? We’re going to be inundated with requests.”
Mayor Pat Taylor said an ad hoc committee from the Town will be formed to work with Hospital representatives and report to the Board at October’s meeting. The Town’s ad hoc committee includes Commissioners Amy Patterson and Buz Dotson.
Closed session news
The Board went into closed session to discuss broadband RFPs submitted by five companies.
The Board came out of closed session and voted to reject all five bids because each RFP had formatting problems. The Board directed town staff to republish the original RFP along with clarifications.
There will be a 30-day deadline for submission of a new RFP/bid.
No action was taken on a second closed session item, the acquisition of real estate property.