After hours of deliberation, a neighborhood group gave preliminary approval Thursday to a contentious proposal to build a helipad on the roof of GW Hospital – but a final decision is likely more than a week away.
The Foggy Bottom and West End Neighborhood Advisory Commission passed an initial agreement with the hospital, making several minor changes. The hospital will be able weigh in on the amendments that were made and if hospital officials suggest additional changes, the ANC will vote at its next meeting Sept. 19 to accept those changes or insist the hospital approve the initial proposal, ANC Commissioner Patrick Kennedy said.
Thursday’s motion was approved with a 5-1 vote. Commissioner Rebecca Coder voted against the proposal. Commissioner Philip Schrefer abstained and Commissioner William Smith recused himself from the vote.
Kennedy, who voted in favor of the motion, said Thursday night’s vote set the parameters for discussions with hospital officials and set a timeframe to come to a final determination.
“It’s a tough issue, and I think people obviously have very strongly held opinions on it and understandable anxieties,” Kennedy said in an interview. “And I think most of us have traveled on the road of ambivalence in relation to this at some point or another.”
Babak Sarani, the director of trauma and acute care surgery at the hospital, said the project is needed to quickly treat trauma patients. MedStar Washington Hospital Center, the only other top-trauma care hospital in the District with a helipad, cannot handle the amount of flights it now needs to accommodate, he said.
“We will not use this helipad for non-emergency traffic,” Sarani said at the meeting. “I wouldn’t ask the neighbors to bare noise for something inconsequential.”
Community members said they feared flights would increase over time, but Sarani said there is no plan to go beyond two to three flights each week.
Roughly 60 people showed up to the meeting at St. Mary’s Court. Local residents supporting the measure said the helipad would save lives and service people from across D.C. Other neighbors said helicopters taking off and landing in a heavily-populated urban area will cause noise and disrupt residents’ quality of life.
Marija Hughes, an alumna who has lived in the area since 1975, said she opposes the helipad because of concerns about safety and the noise generated by low-flying helicopters. She speaking to the ANC, she listed several helicopter accidents that occured in the last decade, including the crash in Charlottesville, Va. that killed two Virginia State Police officers last month.
“They are great but not in a dense area,” Hughes said. “They wake up children. They wake up the elderly,”
Steve Charnovitz, an associate professor of law, said he supports the helipad because it would serve people outside of Foggy Bottom. He said the potentially life-saving capability of the helipad should override any other neighborhood concerns.
“I think it’s a very selfish attitude and you should think twice before taking that decision on an issue of life or death,” he said