Beaufort Memorial Hospital moved one step closer Monday to a new outpatient center in Bluffton, receiving initial county approval for a road to the site.
Hospital officials want to build on 20 acres off U.S. 278 and plans call for a new roundabout on Buckwalter Parkway, about 900 feet south of the U.S. 278 intersection.
Some council members have said that's too close to the existing signal. County standards for Buckwalter require 2,000 feet between traffic lights.
Beaufort County's Finance Committee considered the plan Feb. 7 but tabled it for more discussion. It granted initial approval by a 4-2 vote Monday, although details need to be worked out and approved by the full county council, which is expected to discuss it at its meeting Monday.
The new site would allow Beaufort Memorial to expand its services in Bluffton. Currently, about 25 hospital employees occupy 17,000 square feet in Westbury Park. They provide primary care, X-rays, mammograms and other procedures.
Bluffton Medical Services, as the branch is known, opened in 2006, starting in about 5,000 square feet.
"We've almost doubled our size there in the last two years," Beaufort Memorial president Rick Toomey said.
The first phase of the project would relocate the Bluffton staff to a new, 40,000- to 60,000-square-foot building, which would include room for growth.
"We wouldn't look to fill the entire building up immediately," Toomey said.
The site eventually could accommodate as much as 120,000 square feet of space.
But hospital officials have said the plan hinges on access to Buckwalter Parkway.
"Our board, if we get down to a point and we see that we cannot make it work, we're not going to buy this property," Beaufort Memorial Board member David Tedder told the committee Monday. "We don't want to have someplace that you can't get in and out of for medical services."
Councilman Jerry Stewart argued a roundabout within 2,000 feet of U.S. 278 would require modifications to the county's access-management plan.
But county plans already include a median cut and intersection with stop signs at that point, Tedder said.
"The access-management standards do not allow us to put in a signal. It is silent on all other aspects," county engineering and infrastructure director Rob McFee said. "In my opinion, there is no prohibition on a roundabout."
McFee also said it "would be extraordinary if a traffic circle did not perform better than a signal."
Stewart questioned why the intersection could not be built farther south.
"The short answer is money, because you're going to have to condemn at least two to three other people's property to be able to do that," Tedder said.
Councilman Steve Baer voted against the proposal because he wants more details.
"I want this to happen, because it's a good use," Baer said. "But in doing due diligence for the taxpayer, if you had provided us materials a week before Jan. 4 -- when this appeared as an off-agenda item -- given us a month to ask and answer questions, we'd be voting on this thing in council now."
A frontage road has been in the county's plans, but there is no funding for it.
Beaufort Memorial wants pay for the road upfront, then have that amount deducted from its future impact fees.
If the full outpatient center is built, it would generate about $1.5 million in fees, according to the agreement submitted to the county.
Impact fees from other developments using the hospital-built infrastructure also could be used to repay Beaufort Memorial.
Councilman Brian Flewelling, who voted to move forward, said he wants to see more detail about which future developments would be affected before a final vote by the full council.
"Somebody needs to look at a map and tell me exactly which properties we're talking about," he said, "and then I'll be happy to vote in favor of this."