Oxford annexation request raises hospital questions

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

OXFORD – A request to include a 160-acre block of land in the city of Oxford has fueled speculation that Baptist Memorial Health Care officials may be considering a site west of the existing hospital for the proposed new hospital.
Landowners Beth and Robert King and Catherine Babb, who live on the property, petitioned Lafayette County Chancery Court to order the quarter-section square be annexed by the city, which surrounds it on three sides.
“Oxford has a well-documented need for expansion,” the petition states. “The territory in some ways stands in the way of that need for expansion as connecting corridors for city services are unable to join the commercially zoned area along South Lamar and Mimosa Drive with the Old Taylor Road area and its dense residential population.”
A hearing is set for the case on April 3 in Chancery Court.
Baptist bought the existing facility from Oxford and Lafayette County last summer, promising a $250 million replacement.
In late 2010 the Memphis-based chain surreptitiously bought more than 100 acres west of Oxford, prompting a public outcry over its distance from the existing medical community and long-term care facilities, its dependence on an often bottlenecked intersection and the difficulty of providing water and sewer service.
Baptist renounced the site, and system Chief Operating Officer Jason Little pledged to confine site selection to Oxford’s “current city limits.”
The purchase agreement signed by Baptist, Oxford and Lafayette County confines the hospital and clinics to the city limits but does not specify “current” or “existing” bounds.
City attorney Pope Mallette said the decision to leave open the possibility of an annexed site came after lengthy discussions that he remembered as being in both closed and open meetings.
If a superior site were offered outside current limits, he said, “why would the city want to tie its own hands?” Such a restriction would preclude annexing, six years after the last annexation, any site Baptist might consider, he said.
Several residents who followed the hospital sale, along with former Lafayette County Board of Supervisors President Lloyd Oliphant, could not recall open discussion of the language revision. At least one owner of land near the hospital but outside city limits stopped marketing his property to hospital officials after Little’s pledge.
Alderman-at-Large John Morgan didn’t recall whether the issue was discussed openly but called for a public annexation meeting “to lay all our cards on the table.”
Don Hutson, Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi administrator, declined to reaffirm Little’s “current” city limits pledge or to say whether Baptist is considering the annexation petition area for construction.
“Baptist has not made a decision on the location yet and is exploring all the options,” Hutson said. Little did not return the Daily Journal’s call Tuesday or Wednesday.
Mayor Pat Patterson said he didn’t have an opinion on the annexation or the hospital site “as long as Baptist builds within the city of Oxford.”
errol.castens@journalinc.com