When Prince George's County Council Member Darlene Z. White proposed legislation last week that would create a new zoning category called "health campuses," she reactivated one of the county's longest-running controversies.
Although the legislation would aid several hospitals in the county, both private and public, it would also enable Dr. Francis P. Chiaramonte to build his own "Mayo Clinic" on land around his Southern Maryland Hospital Center.
Under the proposed legislation, health campuses could be established in residential areas if special exceptions are granted by the County Council. A health campus could include professional medical centers, residential housing for staff, elderly or physically handicapped persons, motels, warehouses and laundry facilities, swimming pools, tennis courts and community centers.
Chiaramonte plans to build such a center including an acute-care facility and housing for on-call nurses and physicians, a nursing home, warehouses, teaching facilities and a hotel for patients coming to his hospital for diagnostic tests. He already has applied for similar zoning through a request in the Clinton-Tanglewood Special Map Amendment (SMA).
The White bill would give him another option should his SMA request for a "health-care machine" be denied, an option Chiaramonte thinks he should be allowed in order to finish his hospital.
"You look at the Capital Centre," said Chiaramonte, "and it goes to show you what a politician can do when he wants to do it. If (County Executive Winfield) Kelly wants new quality, here's the way to get it.
"The state told me in 1971 that I had to buy that much land to build this health campus before I could get my certificate. So the state tells you to do it, but you find you're in idiotsville when it comes to the county zoning for any health campus of this kind."
And while several council members say they support the bill, not only for Chiaramonte but for hospitals like Doctor's Hospital in Lanham, it is still uncertain how Kelly sees the bill. The two men have been a loggerheads over several issues surrounding Southern Maryland Hospital and, county sources said, peace may not yet have come over the land.
Recently, Chiaramonte wrote David G. Hartlove, a council member from the Clinton area, asking for street lights, traffic signals and signs for his hospital, and for a $1-million loan from the county to be used for an "emergency system" and for "patients the hospital is obligated to care for."
The public-works projects were approved; the loan request was turned down. Hartlove replied that "even though like any business it may requires some substance (help) in the early periods" of its existence, the Maryland Cost Review Commission (which sets hospital rates) "allowed Chiaramonte to charge slightly higher rates to cover charity and bad debts."
Deputy county administrator Samuel Wynkoop commented, "At Prince George's General (the first county-owned hospital) we have no option - we've got to take whatever rolls in the door. Why do private hospitals do so much nicer? Because they don't have to take the dregs."
Chiaramonte thinks "politics" plays too important a role in the "hospital game in this county.
"There was no question that politics entered into the choice of a public hospital in the northern end of the county and a private one down here. There are a lot more taxpayers up there. But the county's board of trade said this will be the biggest industry in southern Maryland. We've saved the taxpayers money by building it."
The quarrels between the county and Chiaramonte are like many in public life - each side has its own version ans the truth seems to be somewhere in between.
When Chiaramonte asked for the $1-million grant, Kelly wrote and told him he had already loaned him $50,000 when he began the hospital project. Chiaramonte contends that the county loaned the $50,000 to the town of Morningside, not him, when the town was trying to sell municipal bonds.
The sharpest words, however, came early last year when Chiaramonte said he would deed three acres of his land to the county to build an ambulatory care center. "I knew we couldn't make any money off of it but it would be good health care center next to our hospital." The county refused his "gift."
"The general feeling of mistrust with him came then," said Wynkoop. "When we found that his site would cost more to develop than to just buy a piece of ground, we picked out another three-acre site on his property. But we started fighting every step of the way then over lights, road access. It was a constant controversy. We thought this was just a taste of what it would be like later so we pulled out."
Did the county perhaps put too many roadblocks in the path to a privately owned hospital in southern Prince George's? "Maybe we were intransigent - perhaps too overjealous in terms of execution of the law," said Wynkoop.
"Maybe we are too slow in our processes with zoning and the like," said Hartlove. "But I don't think it is a political thing. There were no reasons or people who deliberately stepped out to slow the process."
But Chiaramonte appears somewhat wary of county involvement. And he is now concerned that the health campus legislation may be in jeopardy because the "people in Upper Marlboro" know he needs it. This thing (the hospital center) has been a nightmare since it began. I'm sorry I put something so sophisticated down here. All I've gotten is (trouble). These people needed this badly and before it's over it will be here. I'll feel that I've done my duty."