Watauga Medical Center expansion

A rendering depicts the future four-story expansion at Watauga Medical Center in Boone.

BOONE — The Boone Planning Commission on July 27 recommended approval of a conditional district rezoning request by Watauga Medical Center to accommodate plans for a new two-story central energy plant and a four-story hospital expansion — an estimated $72.9 million project.

The project would also include the relocation of Mary Street to the south to align with Johnson Street. The Johnson Street extension would intersect with Deerfield Road across from the CVS pharmacy entrance. A traffic impact analysis recommended a turn signal at the intersection.

The hospital is requesting a rezoning of existing hospital property and a portion of an adjacent tract from O/I Office Institutional and B3 General Business to Conditional District O/I Institutional with a phased site-specific development plan. The applicant has requested a five-year vesting period for the project.

The rezoning request goes before the Boone Town Council later this month for final consideration.

Hospital leaders have said the replacement of the energy plant, built in 1964, is a top priority, as it has failed several times in the past year. A failure of the HVAC system in July 2019 resulted in a loss of cooling for three days at the hospital, requiring the acquisition of cooling units from Charlotte and other areas, according to meeting materials.

“Most of our central energy plant is extremely out of date,” said Jim Deal, attorney for the project.

According to the Planning & Inspections Department staff report for the request, the project would begin with the 10,225-square-foot energy plant as the first phase, followed by the street relocation and site work for the future hospital expansion and then the new four-story, 92,849-square-foot hospital bed tower.

Deal said project leaders are requesting the five-year vesting period as a precautionary measure, but that they feel the project could be constructed within two years.

Deal said the new wing would house new surgical areas, new patient rooms and other facilities, and that existing patient rooms could be repurposed for other uses. As a result, the expansion will likely result in a similar number of patient rooms as the existing 117-bed hospital, Deal said, but the patient rooms will be oriented in a way that provides better access for staff.

The existing three-story hospital reaches a height just over 39 feet. The new tower would reach 60 feet at the top of parapets, with a stair tower that goes to 67 feet — meeting town height requirements.

Speaking earlier this year, Rob Hudspeth, senior vice president for system advancement at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, said the timing of the new hospital bed tower construction would be dependent upon several factors, including the financial impacts of COVID-19.

The current project and rezoning request does not include plans for the Henson property, located to the south of Johnson Street on Deerfield Road. But the traffic impact analysis report identified the 15.9-acre property — which the Appalachian Regional Healthcare System purchased in 2016 for $9 million — as a site for a future “medical village,” with approximately 48,000 square feet of medical offices.

The Planning Commission recommended approval of the request with conditions, including a four-year vesting period and a condition that would require the hospital to install and pay for a greenway path on a 10-foot easement. The hospital campus has been identified as an area that could connect the Boone Greenway Trail to the planned Middle Fork Greenway, which eventually will link Boone to Blowing Rock.

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