Wareham Historic Commission OK’s demolition of Tobey Homestead with conditions, deadline

Southcoast Health has one year to produce plans paying ‘homage’ to historic structure
Jan 31, 2019

Tobey Homestead, once the home of Tobey Hospital’s benefactor, is closer to being demolished for a $25 million emergency department expansion after a Wareham Historic District Commission vote Thursday. However, hospital officials have one year to produce plans that honor the building’s history or risk losing the right to tear it down.

Commission Chair Robert Blair spoke after the 3-1 vote that approved a “certificate of hardship” for Southcoast Health, allowing the New Bedford-based health system to move forward with the demolition. 

Per the town's bylaws: The Historical Commission becomes involved in the construction process when an alteration is considered for any building older than 75 years old. The Historic District Commission deals with those buildings located in any of the town's three historic districts, including the one near the hospital. Tobey Homestead was built in 1825 and belonged to Alice Tobey Jones, the hospital’s benefactor and namesake. Southcoast operates the hospital and owns the homestead.

“If we can’t come to some solution together that provides for a historic homage of the existing building, then this certificate will be voided,” said Blair.

More than 150 people packed Town Hall Auditorium during a public hearing where many reluctantly favored the demolition. They said an expanded emergency department was crucial, even if it meant losing a local landmark.

Southcoast Health officials announced the 25,000-square-foot expansion two years ago. The department was last renovated in 1987 and is designed to serve 15,000 patients annually. Today, the department serves 30,000 people each year. Plans call for expanding the department to serve 40,000 patients annually.

Blair noted Southcoast officials must return to the board.

“You will have to come before us again to get any plans approved,” said Blair.”You can’t demolish the building until you get those plans approved. This is not completely over.”

Those at the hearing largely favored the demolition. Resident Richard Swenson summed up the crowd’s mood. 

“The availability of quality healthcare is the number one concern for citizens and opportunities to expand that don’t come along very often,” said Swenson. “I’m 65 years old, and I’m going to be using that emergency room. I want the new one.”

Renee Clark, chief operating officer for Southcoast Health, also urged the commission to approve the request, saying the current emergency department is woefully inadequate.

“Anyone who has been to the emergency room as a patient, loved one or caregiver and staff – I think we can all agree that no matter what position you have, it is in need of an update and expansion,” said Clark. 

Emergency department doctor Sarah Bernier agreed.

“Patients deserve better,” she said. “They deserve more privacy and more nurses.”

The heads of Wareham’s Police, Fire and EMS Departments all favored the expansion. Wareham Police Chief John Walcek said he was torn about his support. He noted his father once served on the Historic District Commission.

“It pains me to say this, but they need a new emergency department,” said Walcek. “From a police perspective they need it 100 percent.”

Wareham EMS Director David Evans and Fire Chief Matt Rowley both agreed, saying they see firsthand the need for an expanded emergency department on a daily basis. 

Not everyone was in favor of the demolition, though. 

Resident Holly Harootunian requested a compromise. After citing Southcoast Health’s net income for 2016, which she listed as $77 million, Harootunian asked officials to move the building.

“You have tons of money,” she told officials. “Spend $500,000 and move the building…Please don’t tear it down. To those of us who live in Wareham it’s one of the most important pieces of our town.”

Resident Geoff Swett, who also serves on the Wareham School Committee, said he was ambivalent about the expansion. He had a pointed message for Southcoast officials, saying healthcare, even for people with insurance, is increasingly unaffordable.

“It occurred to me that in some ways it’s crazy to sacrifice a beautiful homestead for something that people can’t afford or have to go into debt to afford,” said Swett. “I want to leave Southcoast officials with that.”