Future of Tobey Homestead, demolition delay discussed
Town historical committees and residents expressed concern and frustration on Wednesday, April 12, about Southcoast Health's proposed 25,000-square-foot expansion of the Tobey Hospital emergency department, which will raze or relocate the historic Tobey Homestead on the property.
The nonprofit health system announced plans for the multi-million dollar project in March. Representatives say that the current emergency department is designed to serve 15,000 patients annually, but patient volume has increased to more than 30,000 per year in recent years.
The announcement immediately ignited concerns of residents who don't want to see the landmark home, built in 1825 and located adjacent to the hospital on Main Street, demolished. It was owned by Alice Tobey Jones, who was the benefactor of Tobey Hospital.
A decision on whether to begin a process that would delay the demolition of the homestead was itself delayed on Wednesday, as some Wareham Historical Commission members lamented the lack of information available about the structural integrity of the former home.
The "demolition delay" process
The Town of Wareham has two town-appointed volunteer committees that deal with historic properties -- the Historical Commission and the Historic District Commission.
Per the town's bylaws: The Historical Commission becomes involved when an alteration or demolition is considered for any building older than 75 years old. The Historic District Commission deals with those buildings located in any of the town's three historic districts: Center Park, in the area of upper Main Street; Parker Mills, in the area of the former Tremont Nail Factory; and the Narrows Historic District, which includes lower Main Street, around Tobey Hospital and the waterfront in the area of Besse Park.
These committees are engaged even before official building plans are filed with the town and permits are secured. First, a property must be determined to be "historically significant." By definition, Tobey Homestead is considered historically significant -- it's on the National Register of Historic Places.
Once a property is determined to be historically significant, a demolition delay is invoked. The vote for the delay begins a timeline during which committee members determine whether a particular property should be preserved, rather than demolished, and if so, what might be done to preserve it.
Both historical committees held a joint meeting on Wednesday. The Historical Commission was charged with determining whether to begin the demolition delay process. From there, the Historic District Commission would take the reins, as the homestead is located in the Narrows Historic District.
The discussion became emotional at times, with committee members arguing that Southcoast has not done enough to maintain the homestead.
The Historical Commission opted not to vote on the demolition delay, instead voting four in-favor, three against tabling the discussion until Southcoast Health could produce a full report on the homestead completed by a structural engineer, which the nonprofit has already engaged.
The three members who voted against the measure argued not against the delay itself. They instead noted that any information necessary for further discussion and an eventual decision would simply become available during the delay process.
"I do appreciate the fact that the ER needs to expand," said Historical Commission Chair Angela Dunham, who was one of the "nay" votes. "We don't want to stand in the way of what Tobey Hospital needs."
The hospital expansion
The design for the new emergency department is in the preliminary stages. Southcoast Health representatives say the expansion has a planned footprint of 25,000 to 28,000 square feet.
The current emergency department is on the Main Street side of the hospital. That would not change. The renovation would expand the current department onto the land that currently includes the Tobey Homestead.
Southcoast Health considered various options when determining which direction Tobey Hospital might expand, said Paul Crawford, the nonprofit's vice president of Support Services.
"We settled on this one because it's connected to imaging, ICU, and OR," he told the historical committees. "It's a good linear flow through the hospital. ... It's the best flow for patient care."
Residents expressed concern on Wednesday about the size of the expansion, including the fact that three levels are planned, and worried that it wouldn't fit in with the historic character of the area.
"It won't be any higher than Tobey is now. It's not going to be a tower," Crawford said, noting: "It's going to be a challenge to incorporate the aesthetics. We are still going through the design. We're not going to make it obtrusive."
Why hasn't the hospital used the homestead? Can the building be incorporated into the expansion?
Southcoast Health representatives say the building is not suitable for treating patients in its current form. An estimate from approximately five years ago put a price of $1.2 million on a renovation, Crawford said. He noted that the number is probably higher today.
Crawford expressed understanding of residents' concerns for the property, but also noted that the nonprofit is not equipped to deal with such a project.
"We are not in the business of restoring historical properties," he said. "We are building a hospital."
Claire Smith of West Wareham, who also serves as town moderator, asked whether the nonprofit would consider rehabilitating the homestead and using it as a connecting corridor to the expanded emergency department. She explained that Community Preservation Act funds, which are generated by a property tax surcharge and can be used to renovate historic properties, could mitigate costs.
Crawford said that Southcoast is "on a very accelerated route" to complete the expansion, but "I can entertain that with our CEO."
Making the situation trickier, Peter Cohenno, public information officer for Southcoast Health, later noted that as a medical facility, the hospital is beholden to building codes that limit the types of buildings it can occupy. This is particularly relevant in the area of fire resistance.
"...construction of hospitals must be non-combustible/protected and structural building elements must have minimum fire ratings," Cohenno said.
Tobey Homestead does not meet that requirement.
"The Homestead would be considered a 5B construction type, which is the lowest rating available," Cohenno continued. "Combustible, non-protected."
It is not clear whether the hospital would be allowed to work around such code requirements if not providing medical services in the homestead.
The next steps and options for preservation
Southcoast Health will allow members of the historical committees to tour Tobey Homestead in the near future. Ideally equipped with information from the tour and the report of the structural engineer, the Historical Commission will meet on Wednesday, May 3. If a vote is taken in favor of delaying the demolition, a 12-month timeline begins.
During the 12 months, the Historic District Commission must determine whether the homestead should be preserved, and if so, how.
If the Historic District Commission determines that the homestead should not or cannot be preserved, the town can issue a permit for Southcoast Health to have the homestead demolished.
Some of the questions that will likely be asked: Should the building be moved? In its current structural state, can it be moved? Where would it moved?
"We are looking for alternatives to move the building and we will continue to work with town officials to achieve that goal," said Chris Saunders, a New Bedford attorney representing Southcoast Health.
Saunders said there may be other locations on Main Street -- not owned by Southcoast -- that could accommodate the homestead. He emphasized, however, that Southcoast Health would not finance a move.
"If a site can be found, we're willing to sit down with whoever wants the structure ... to work with them to move" it, the attorney said.