Gov. David Ige’s administration says it will move forward on plans to construct a skilled nursing facility on the edge of the University of Hawaii’s Windward Community College campus in Kaneohe, despite rising opposition from the school’s leadership associations and the college chancellor.
In recent weeks, the college’s faculty, staff and student senates passed identical resolutions urging the governor to consider building the facility on a different parcel of land controlled by the college so that it won’t disrupt the beauty of the Great Lawn, which runs through the center of the campus.
The Kaneohe Neighborhood Board also voted 9-2 in February to support the facility’s proposed relocation.
“The campus is probably the prettiest in the whole (college) system, with an enormous, beautiful Great Lawn,” said Floyd McCoy, chairman of the college’s faculty senate and a professor of geology, geophysics and oceanography. “The facility they want to build will completely block the view … and will block the grandness of this huge, grassy area.”
Faculty and students have also raised concerns that the facility, which is expected to house some of the patients from the nearby Hawaii State Hospital, the state’s psychiatric hospital, could exacerbate campus safety concerns.
But officials from the state Department of Health, which is overseeing the project, say that changing the location of the facility now would delay the project and that the plot of land that the college has offered up for the nursing facility isn’t suitable.
“The location was chosen because it did not require visitors to travel through campus,” said Janice Okubo, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, by email. “It is important to point out that the land parcels for the land swaps proposed by Windward Community College were not suitable for the skilled nursing facility because of the topography and location on the campus.”
The nursing facility is part of a larger master plan for the Hawaii State Hospital campus, which sits adjacent to the college. The hospital primarily houses and treats mentally ill residents ordered there by the courts after committing minor or serious crimes.
For years, the hospital has suffered from overcrowding, lax security and chronic assaults by patients on staff. A state Senate committee investigating the hospital warned in a 2014 report that ongoing assaults at the hospital could eventually end in a fatality if safety problems weren’t quickly addressed.
The Health Department developed a master plan to overhaul the hospital campus a decade ago, but the plan was never funded or implemented.
Ige has since made the hospital a top priority of his administration. Last year state Department of Health Director Virginia Pressler unveiled a revamped master plan, which the department has been aggressively working to execute.
A major component of the overhaul involves building a new 144-bed forensic facility that has much tighter security controls. The administration successfully secured $160 million from the Legislature this year for construction.
Plans for the skilled nursing facility are separate from the main forensic building, but the Health Department says it has always been part of the master plan for the Hawaii State Hospital campus.
The nursing facility is being developed by Avalon Health Care Group, based in Salt Lake City, which successfully bid on the project in 2009. The private facility, which would have 140 to 150 beds, is expected to serve up to 50 discharged state hospital patients. The remainder of the facility’s beds would go to individuals with no tie to the hospital.
Okubo said that changing the location of the nursing facility would result in “substantial delay.”
Avalon has already done a traffic assessment, soil analysis and finished archaeological trenching.
“We would have to go back to square one,” she said by email. Okubo said that when the project was competitively bid, it was predicated on the nursing facility being located at the site of Bishop Hall, which is part of the Hawaii State Hospital campus, but also sits on the western edge of the college’s Great Lawn. The building will need to be demolished to make room for the modern nursing facility.
Bishop Hall was constructed in the early 1930s and is on the Hawaii State Register of Historic Places. Doug Dykstra, chancellor of Windward Community College, said that architecturally the building blends in with other buildings that line the Great Lawn.
Bishop Hall “is part of the State Hospital’s defined campus, although any casual observer would think it is part of our campus,” he said.
Dykstra said the new nursing facility would obstruct the lawn’s view planes, which the college has an obligation to protect. Even though the building belongs to the State Hospital, he said that it’s part of the campus’ historic district.
He said he has approached state officials several times in recent years about a land swap, but was always rebuffed.
The college’s proposed site, which is in a vacant, wooded area, would be easier to develop because Avalon wouldn’t have to obtain approvals to tear down a historic building, Dykstra said. The college wants Bishop Hall to once again house Hakipuu School, a charter school that was evicted from the building when Avalon won the project bid.
Dykstra stressed that he is not opposed to the new 144-bed forensic facility, which he called “crucial,” and said that concerns about the proximity of psychiatric patients to the college campus were “overblown.”
“There have been periodic escapes, but they have not been damaging to this campus in any way,” he said. “Nobody has ever been hurt and there is no known property damage caused by the elopements.”
However, resolutions passed by the college’s faculty, staff and student senates cite security as a main concern.
“Due to past incidents on campus and delayed or nonreports of patient elopement, the students of Windward Community College generally feel wary of their safety and security in regards to the patients and residents of the State Hospital, and dislike the notion that we will be surrounded by a potential security issue on all nonforested sides of the campus,” according to the senates’ resolution.
McCoy, of the faculty senate, called the safety issue “enormous.”
“There is no barrier between us and them — none,” he said.
In a May letter to the student senate, Pressler said that patients in the skilled nursing facility would not pose a safety risk. “All residents of a skilled nursing facility are carefully screened for eligibility and appropriateness in this type of homelike setting,” she wrote.
Pressler also said the new nursing facility is expected to “blend seamlessly into the campus” and that the building’s design “intentionally preserves the views of the Koolau Mountains.”
Faye Lincoln, senior vice president for Avalon, said the nursing facility is expected to open toward the end of 2018.