Council approves zone change for potential inpatient rehab facility

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The Johnston Town Council unanimously approved a zone change for Encompass Health Corporation during its Dec. 9 meeting, as the Birmingham-based company looks to make a $42 million investment in the town.

Encompass plans to open a 24/7 inpatient rehabilitation hospital along Hartford Avenue near the Interstate 295 interchange, which would provide about 100 full-time positions for registered nurses, occupational and physical therapists, administrators and more.

K. Joseph Shekarchi, who represents the seller Sitwell Park, led off with an anecdote that one person in particular was rooting against approval on the zone change.

“As I was driving here this evening, I got a call from my mayor, not your mayor, the mayor of Warwick, [Joseph Solomon],” Shekarchi said. “He said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m going to Johnston.’ He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m going for Encompass and hoping to build a rehabilitation hospital.’ ‘Nothing personal,’ he goes, ‘but I hope you lose tonight.’ I said, ‘Mayor, why are you hoping I lose tonight?’ He said, ‘They’re a really great employer and company to have, I hope they come to Warwick.’”

Solomon’s prayers weren’t answered, though, as the zone change – switching the land from R-40 residential and B-2 business to entirely B-3 business – was met with little protest from either the council or the public. Shekarchi noted that the new zone is consistent with the comprehensive plan, and that the Planning Board offered a positive recommendation.

The only speaker during the public hearing was Jean Lynch, who said she was “delighted” about the development. Despite the approval, Shekarchi told the council this won’t be the last time they discuss the project.

“This project will still need to go before the Planning Board for preliminary approval, we’ll still need to receive all state approval for any development — DOT, DEM, etc.,” Shekarchi said. “More importantly than that, this project will also need a certain approval from the Department of Health called a certificate of need. This is a project that’s going to have a lot of scrutiny, a lot of involvement and a lot of public input.”

Shekarchi added that a letter was sent to neighbors, encouraging them to reach out to DiPrete Engineering or the property owner if they had any questions or concerns. He said they were delivered just after Thanksgiving, and it was a “good sign” he hasn’t heard back from anyone.

The letter also told residents that the parties are aware of drainage issues, and the project isn’t going to make them worse.

“We don’t have answers because we’re at the very beginning of the process, but we will not in any way, no way, shape or form add or exacerbate any drainage or flooding issues in the area,” Shekarchi said, quoting the letter. “As a matter of fact, our preliminary indication with our engineers from DiPrete is that we will significantly improve the drainage in the area by capturing our water, keeping it on site, draining it, wherever it needs to go – we’re not going to contribute to that [problem].”

Elizabeth Noonan, partner at Providence-based law firm Adler Pollock & Sheehan, spoke for Encompass and said the location would offer a “higher level of care” for neurological disorders, oncology, brain injuries, strokes and other ailments.

Noonan noted that the certificate of need discussions are ongoing with the Department of Health. She said DOH is conducting an additional study regarding need for the proposed 50 beds, after which she expects to return for more hearings. If all goes as planned, the facility could open in 2022.

“Encompass has received awards,” Noonan said. “It’s very involved in its local community, even though they are a national company. This is an individual entity that will be operating, like Joe said, they’ll be buying the property so making the investment into it. Also we’ll be cooperating and working with other local institutions – URI, Brown – in the medical field.”

Shekarchi reminded the board that the town would continue to have site plan control over the land, adding that it’s not a “blanket zone change.” He said there will be at least two more public hearings throughout the process as well.

Shekarchi praised the council and Mayor Joseph Polisena for “keeping an open mind” about large-scale developments, noting Encompass Health’s decision to purchase the property rather than lease as a sign of its commitment to Johnston.

“They chose Johnston for a lot of reasons, but primarily I give credit to the mayor and the Town Council and the whole town,” Shekarchi told the council. “‘You submit, I will permit.’ That’s the mayor’s motto. You laugh about that, but that’s not the case in other communities in Rhode Island, seriously … If they see an area that has a history of good permitting, fast permitting, honorable, no political shenanigans, they want to be there. And that’s Johnston. That’s a credit to you.”

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