ELKTON — With the hope that Union Hospital’s impending merger with Christiana Care will breathe life into the area for speciality doctor practices, the town Planning Commission blessed a zoning change that would allow medical offices downtown under certain conditions.
The Planning Commission on Monday agreed to recommend to the Board of Commissioners to amend the zoning ordinance to allow medical offices as special exceptions with conditions in the Town Center (TC) zone, the heart of downtown Elkton. The proposed amendment goes to the Board of Commissioners on Wednesday night for a public hearing, after which it’ll make a vote.
This suggestion comes more than a year after the town shut out all medical uses in TC, among other restrictions on medical uses, after a suboxone clinic moved into Elktowne Center. But Elkton officials took a second look after the same zoning regulations kept a cardiovascular specialty practice from moving into that same building.
“I don’t think that ordinance was ever intended not to have doctors in town,” Planning Commission Chair David Wiseman said. “If it was, it was foolish in my opinion.”
The amendment would allow both primary care physician offices with three or less or four or more professionals in TC with special conditions, approved by the town’s Board of Appeals.
Another provision allows physicians in TC with three or more professionals to relocate one time to another building within TC either above or below street level, given the practice has the same number of professionals.
Planning Commission member Keith Thompson still worried that it would give practices “carte blanche” to move within downtown Elkton. The commission agreed to additional language that spelled out only existing physician offices can move within the TC zone.
Delaware Cardiovascular Associates currently has several offices in northern Delaware, but only one office in Cecil County on North Bridge Street. In the last four years, business has boomed with Union Hospital down the road needing a place to refer patients.
The speciality office is poised to flourish with Christiana Care Health System intending to merge with Union Hospital by next year, according to Dr. Mark Zweben of Delaware Cardiovascular Associates.
“Having a well-established position here, when Christiana comes, we’ll be busier in a place we’ve already expanded to,” Zweben said. “We’ve basically outgrown [the North Bridge Street] office and it’s really hard to operate out of that office at this point. [Elktowne Center] is a nice fit.”
Medical use zoning was made in mind to preserve downtown buildings for retail and restaurant space, but TC expands beyond Main Street north to the railroad line as well. Under the existing zoning regulations, Delaware Cardiovascular Associates is grandfathered in — and anchored to — its North Bridge Street spot.
Elktowne Center was once home to J.J. Newberry’s department store, and at times in the past hosted the Cecil County Chamber of Commerce and the Good as New Thrift Store.
These days, it hosts office space for the Department of Juvenile Services and Family Services; Degussa International; Pathways 4 Mental Health; Impacting Your World Christian Center; and East Coast Ambulance Services.
With three cardiology practices in Cecil County, Elktowne Center owner Ted Dewson, who bought the building with his partner Mark Fortunato in 2016, sees Delaware Cardiovascular Associates as another anchor into the building.
“We’re here for the long term, guys. Our goal is to get it fully-leased. It looks like a different building today to when we bought it,” Dewson told the Planning Commission.
Marybeth Cole, of City Home Medical Supply and a longtime town pharmacist, also spoke on behalf of the cardiology practice. Based on statistics, 45,000 people in Cecil County likely would suffer from cardiovascular disease and existing doctors can’t tend to that population alone.
Cole also hinted if not handled now, this may evolve into a larger problem if the Union Hospital-Christiana Care merger was successful.
“We have successful physicians, and all we want is to keep them close to the hospital,” she said. “Unfortunately in Cecil County, this is the center of medical care. It’s not conducive to the practice to go to Perryville or Rising Sun nor is it beneficial for the people.”
“We cannot let these doctors go anywhere else,” Cole added. “We don’t have a choice.”