By REID TUCKER
Though a four-lane U.S. 331 has long been the dream of many Walton County residents, tourists and business owners, that doesn’t mean the construction project is without its critics.
Perhaps the most vocal of these is DeFuniak Springs’ Healthmark Regional Medical Center. The hospital, as well as several other businesses on the east side of the existing highway along a 3 ½ mile stretch of roadway north from Edgewood Circle, could soon have a major highway “in its front yard,” said Healthmark Public Information Director Ron Kelley. The Florida Department of Transportation’s (FDOT) finalized design draft will not utilize the existing two lanes of U.S. 331, and instead has all four lanes of newly constructed highway, along with turning lanes and medians, running through much of the hospital’s roadfront property.
The FDOT design, which Kelley called “defective,” poses several problems for Healthmark. Several aspects of patient care will be impacted, changes to access and egress to the parking lot, disruption of services in the emergency room, intensive care unit and MRI suite, and a necessary relocation of utilities among them. Furthermore, the hospital’s own plans to expand will be negatively impacted by the proposed path of the new highway, he said.
“Ours is the only hospital for 30 miles in any direction, and a four-lane [U.S. 331] is going to bring growth to the DeFuniak Springs area like nothing we’ve seen since the days of the Chautauqua,” Kelley said. “We don’t think FDOT set out to hurt the hospital and we are not against expanding the highway, but the risks to our patients’ healthcare in the near term are unacceptable. Furthermore, the proposed construction could be devastating for our long- term plans to grow and expand services to the community.”
Kelley said Healthmark has had plans in the works since 2002 to use the land in front of the hospital to build additional physician offices and a full-service pharmacy and to increase maximum patient accommodation from the hospital’s current 50-bed capacity. The FDOT design plan will “drastically reduce” Healthmark’s ability to do this, which he said could have the unforeseen consequence of discouraging population growth and the region’s long-term economic prospects. Further complicating matters, the presence of extensive tracts of wetlands to the eastern and southern sides of hospital property and businesses to the north prohibits hospital expansion in those directions, and the existing hospital building was not designed to support a second story.
Healthmark contends it was not consulted by FDOT during the plans’ design phase and was in fact only notified late last spring, when the design was more or less finalized, that the state planned to declare eminent domain to obtain the property. Though Kelley did not disclose the amount offered by the state to purchase the 2.856 acres, he said Healthmark owner Jim Thompson found it “unacceptable.” Meetings between Healthmark and FDOT began in September 2013 and have been ongoing since, but Kelley said the hospital’s ideas for compromise have gained little traction.
Healthmark submitted a redesign last fall to relocating the highway expansion to the west, but this plan was rejected by FDOT. The City Councils of DeFuniak Springs and Freeport as well as the Walton County Commission all passed resolutions in favor of Healthmark’s redesign, which affected roughly 8/10ths of a mile of roadway. In the meantime the COPE Center assisted living facility on the eastern side of the existing U.S. 331 had to close its doors and has yet found land on which to relocate.
FDOT District 3 Public Information Director Ian Satter said alterations to or deviations from the Department’s plan could delay construction on U.S. 331 for several years, running up the final cost by an indeterminate but substantial amount. A relocation of the new four-lane highway to the west would also impact the historical property of homeowners in the area, Satter said. Additionally, FDOT’s 2012 project development and environmental study demonstrated the need to straighten out a pronounced s-curve in the highway north and south of the Healthmark facility.
The $47 million four-laning project is set to be completed by the summer of 2016, and any changes to the plan at this point would necessitate a required federal environmental study, resulting in a delay of perhaps three years. If that happened, the Department would have to stop construction about four miles south of DeFuniak Springs and then rebid the project upon completion of the study.
Satter said a delay of that sort was in no one’s best interest.
“The design and construction on the roadway will continue as planned,” Satter said. “The last thing we want to is disrupt anybody’s business, and so we’re making efforts to work with business owners in the area. We’ve been meeting with [hospital representatives] consistently, and we’re making efforts to address their concerns.”
By REID TUCKER