Concerned community members filled the Meisel Conference Room at the Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital in Santa Barbara on Tuesday night to address the impact the medical center’s helipad is having on surrounding neighborhoods.
The meeting, which ran for more than two hours, stirred mixed feelings of anger, shock and sadness, leaving some in tears and causing others to storm out.
“We’re frightened,” said one woman in attendance. Another said, “My nerves are on edge every time I hear a helicopter.”
Ron Biscaro, vice president of housing and real estate development for Cottage Hospital, said the helipad is an important part of the facility’s overall operation, noting that there is no other medical facility with a similar trauma center between Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
“Essentially, it’s there for critically ill children, trauma patients and stroke patients,” Biscaro said.
While many members of the audience said they recognize the importance of a helipad and trauma unit, they also said the helicopter impact disrupts their lifestyles. Bothered by lights, noise and vibrations, neighborhood members expressed their desire for negotiations with Cottage Hospital. Many said they wished Cottage would “be a better neighbor.”
Biscaro referred to the environmental impact report, drafted in 2006, in response to complaints. According to Biscaro, the EIR contains a noise study in which a “reasonable worst case” scenario is defined as two helicopter flights per day — one in the morning and one at night.
“We called that impact unavoidable,” Biscaro said. “The City Council and others approved the noise in return for the benefit the helipad would bring to the community.”
Some community members shared their support for Biscaro and Cottage. Celeste Barber of Santa Barbara said she was disheartened to see her neighbors’ behavior at the meeting.
“I think you’re an extraordinary neighbor to us,” Barber said to Biscaro and the other Cottage Hospital representatives. “There’s only one reason to have helicopters, and that’s to save lives. I’m pretty upset. I’m stressed about what I’m hearing right now. And I’m also a resident of this community.”
Other concerns centered on the overall cost of the helipad system, and fears about increased traffic and use of helicopters. In response, Biscaro said other hospitals along the Central Coast are improving the quality of their services, and the number of trauma patients and helicopter calls at Cottage Hospital should remain stable.
“My point is that all the hospitals want to do is take care of their own patients in their community,” Biscaro said. “All the hospitals are becoming more sophisticated and the census is stable.”
Since Cottage Hospital is a nonprofit, some questioned the cost of helicopter flights and who could utilize its services. According to Biscaro, anyone who is in a serious, life-threatening situation can use the helicopter, regardless of insurance or financial situation.
Some community members took it upon themselves to make lists and fliers with suggestions for cooperation between Cottage and surrounding neighborhoods. At the beginning of the meeting, Dana Schorr distributed a two-page flier outlining different ideas.
Toward the end of the meeting, Schorr stood up to express his qualms with Cottage Hospital, accusing the hospital of caring more about money than its neighbors.
“There’s a reason people don’t trust the hospital,” Schorr said. “It’s because when they bring up a question, they’re told, ‘Too bad, it’s a done deal, get over it.’ We know that they have standards. I find it very interesting that the hospital has no interest in meeting with the task force. The reason they don’t care is because it’s about money.”
Similar arguments continued throughout the rest of the evening, with Biscaro concluding that it may be hard for Cottage and its neighbors to make progress toward an agreement.
“I don’t think there’s an easy solution,” Biscaro said to a frustrated crowd. “We’re not here to make your lives miserable. We think that the burden is a justified burden to those who need the services.”
The next community meeting is scheduled for Aug. 15. In the meantime, Biscaro said, Cottage Hospital will be searching for ways to attain a quieter helicopter.