Health & Medicine

Southland health clinic construction delayed

Construction of the proposed $11.7 million public health clinic on Southland Drive will be delayed at least two months following a complaint to the federal government over the potential environmental impact of the project.

The complaint triggered the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, which is overseeing the grant that is funding construction, to ask for an environmental assessment, said HealthFirst Bluegrass executive director William North.

The assessment on the project at 496 Southland Drive will take at least two months and cost about $25,000, he said. But federal authorities are not required to tell HealthFirst who made the complaint or the nature of it.

Discussion of storm water runoff's potential for flooding and pollution was part of two lively public meetings with neighborhood residents.

Whatever the complaints, they weren't brought to HealthFirst officials directly, said North and building committee chairman Tom Burich.

"I wish they'd come to us rather than going around the hook," Burich said.

Burich said he was frustrated because HealthFirst officials have gone out of their way to include the community in the design of the building and site.

HealthFirst created an advisory board made up of Southland area home and business owners to work on the design of the project. HealthFirst also made Don Hurt, the owner of Old Kentucky Chocolates on Southland, a permanent member of the HealthFirst Board of Directors so he can continue to represent neighborhood interests.

Ken Cooke, who served on the HealthFirst advisory board, said overall HealthFirst has done a good job communicating with the neighborhood about the project. But, he said, they have fallen short when it comes to the storm water issue.

Cooke, who is also secretary of the nonprofit Friends of Wolf Run Watershed, said he was unaware of the complaint and the delay caused by the environmental assessment.

He is puzzled by the lack of answers from HealthFirst concerning some basic information — like the impervious surface measurements for the site, he said.

"There are certain details that should be known at this time and they have not released the information," he said.

North said Friday such information has not been released because the site plan isn't complete.

Harry Clarke, newly elected District 10 representative on the Lexington-Fayette County Urban County Council, said his constituents in the Southland area are concerned about the environmental impact of the clinic.

He said he has told them that the 34,000-square-foot clinic appears to be inevitable and that all interested parties need to work together to make it fit in with existing homes and businesses.

"I think that is the best route now," he said.

Clarke added that he needs to make sure the city is involved in managing the increased traffic at the clinic so that it doesn't negatively impact the area.

HealthFirst, a nonprofit primary care clinic supported mostly through tax dollars, serves about 17,000 patients a year, many of them poor, at a clinic at 650 Newtown Pike. That clinic will continue to operate after HealthFirst opens the new clinic.

The grant to build a clinic in Lexington was awarded in 2010 and HealthFirst had two years to spend the money. That deadline passed in the fall of 2012. North, who has said previously that delays could cause the federal government to take back the grant money, said delaying construction because of an environmental assessment is a real risk. The original construction schedule, put together last July shortly after the Southland location was announced, had HealthFirst moving into the building in May.

"The risk is significant" he said, "It's not that we are crying wolf."

HealthFirst officials have promised to hold a third public meeting once the design of the building and site is finalized. That date has not been set.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader