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New $1 billion Virtua Hospital complex would put tiny Westampton on the map

"At one time, the town was just farmland," said Nelson Grovatt, 88, a farmer in Westampton, New Jersey. But over the years, housing developments and industrial parks arrived, and Burlington County further changed the landscape by building schools and a library on a large tract in the town. Now, a proposed $1 billion hospital complex will bring even greater change.

Livestock flock on the Hogan Farm, the proposed site of a $1 billion Virtua Health campus  in Westampton, N.J.
Livestock flock on the Hogan Farm, the proposed site of a $1 billion Virtua Health campus in Westampton, N.J.Read moreBRIANNA SPAUSE/ Staff Photographer

It is a trapezoid-shaped farm, 110 acres dotted with shaggy-haired sheep, baby goats, and a clapboard farmhouse built in the 19th century.

The Hogan Farm is almost hidden, tucked behind an even larger grassy campus that holds more than a dozen Burlington County government and school buildings. The New Jersey Turnpike is about one mile away.

This semi-bucolic scene in Westampton Township, however, could be erased in five years as a planned $1 billion medical complex begins to take shape. Virtua Health Inc. paid $12.3 million for the farm in 2014 and has proposed a nine-story, 670,000-square-foot hospital to replace its three-story hospital in nearby Mount Holly.

Virtua's plan also includes an ambulatory and surgical center, hospice services, a long-term care and rehabilitation facility, assisted-living accommodations, and medical offices. The proposal has been submitted to the town's Land Development Board and to the New Jersey Health Planning Board for approvals.

On Thursday, the state board is expected to analyze the project and vote on whether it meets community needs. The public meeting will be held at the Health Department in Trenton.

James Rivard, a senior vice president at Virtua, said in an interview that the proposed project is comparable to the $1 billion hospital complex that the nonprofit company created on vacant land in Voorhees,  Camden County, in 2011.

"They're similar projects, square-footage-wise," he said, of the two hospitals. While the Voorhees hospital has 399 beds, the Westampton facility at Route 541 and Woodlane Road would have 339, he said. Both were designed to provide infrastructure for advanced medical technology and to offer private rooms for all patients.

"Patients will recover more comfortably in a private room, without the disruptions of care being delivered to a roommate or the disruptions of visitors of a roommate. …  Privacy will be significantly improved," Virtua states on its application for a certificate of need.

Rivard said the hospital in Westampton is expected to open in 2022, and the rest of the campus would be rolled out in phases over a 20-year period.

The new hospital would replace Virtua Memorial Hospital of Burlington County in Mount Holly, a facility built in 1927 and later expanded. It has 383 beds but is landlocked and cannot accommodate the additional 190,000 square feet of space needed to convert its semi-private rooms into private rooms, the application states.

Rivard said that when the Voorhees hospital was built, it, too, replaced an older one several miles away.

Virtua also operates a third hospital in Marlton and has satellite facilities in Camden and Berlin.

A few miles from the still peaceful Westampton site, Nelson Grovatt was planting roses in his garden. "At one time, the town was just farmland," said Grovatt, 88, a lifelong resident and former mayor who has witnessed the many changes in the tiny community, which now has a population of 8,800.

Grovatt, a farmer who grew soybeans and corn on his 150-acre farm, recalled how housing developments arrived in the '50s, followed by industrial and business parks a few decades later. Open space began its decline.

"The taxes from the Hyland Business Park paid for the mortgage on a new municipal building, and we built it without raising taxes," said Grovatt, who served on the town committee for 30 years. He says the new medical campus could help the town pay its bills in a similar fashion.

"I guess it's gonna be all right because the area is being built up and we will need more medical facilities. We're not rural anymore," he said. Yes, traffic would increase, he said, shrugging.  "That always happens when you build," he said.

Mayor C. Andre Daniels also welcomes the project. "It's the boon Westampton needs," he said.

The project allows "a large nonprofit entity to partner with a small community like us and gives us things we couldn't image for ourselves," Daniels said. It could spark the development of a town center and shops, a vision that's been talked about for years, he said.

The medical campus could also put Westampton on the map. Now, people scratch their heads whenever he mentions that he is the mayor of Westampton. "Where?  What?" they ask. "I got tired of explaining where it is. …  Now I just say we are Exit 5 off the turnpike," he said, smiling.

Westampton also is known for the historical village of Timbuctoo, where escaped and freed slaves lived in the early 1800s, said Daniels, a Democrat who has lived in the town for 26 years.

A bustling medical complex would help meet the health needs of residents, he said.

Most of the 75 residents who attended a public hearing Monday on the proposed medical campus in Westampton appeared to favor the project. But some said they dread the congestion it could trigger and urged hospital representatives to take steps to ease increased traffic.

"I'm in support of this," said resident Robert Goodman. "The biggest concern I have is traffic patterns… people cutting through the neighborhood."

The neighborhood that would be most affected by the project is Tarnsfield, a  development of 776 single-family homes.

John Anderson, another resident, criticized the project for a different reason. He said it could create pollution and contaminate the Rancocas Creek.

Rivard said Virtua would conduct traffic and environmental studies. The project is in its early stages, he said.

"I hear the neighbors loud and clear. The traffic will be addressed," he said.

The new Voorhees hospital, he said, underwent "significant changes" after Virtua representatives met with residents during the planning process, he said.

The Virtua proposal says the hospital will cost about $527 million. No plans have been made yet for the hospital that would be shuttered when the new one opens, though Rivard said Virtua plans to "work with Mount Holly officials to see what they would like at this site."

Mount Holly Mayor Jason Jones said in a letter to the health board that he supports the project because the new facility will be only three miles away.

Public bus service between the two communities is available.

During the public hearing, Robert D'Entremont, a veteran, said the closing of the hospital will "leave a vacuum in Mount Holly." He suggested it could be converted to a veterans' hospital. That, he said, would fill a gap in the area, especially since Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is nearby.

The new hospital campus would be buffered mostly by Burlington County's complex, which has various buildings off Woodlane and Irick Roads. The complex includes the county's new library, the County Institute of Technology, Special School Services, the county Amphitheater, and the Fire Training center.

The complex is about twice the size of the Hogan Farm. Many of the buildings were constructed in the 1980s and '90s.

"We have a lot of mixed uses throughout the town," Daniels said. "One of our goals is to have this new project fit in with the rest of the town when we go from being rural to whatever we will become."