By Eric Heinz
San Clemente has been without a hospital for two years now, and the consequences of a lawsuit related to its closure have sat in waiting in federal court ever since.
Officials with MemorialCare Health System, the owner of Saddleback Memorial Medical Center when it was operational and the current owner of the property, said they are waiting for Judge David O. Carter’s decision.
The case is kind of in two parts: The first is to decide whether or not San Clemente’s zoning ordinance that was adopted in 2016 is compliant, and if so what damages are awarded. But if the judge finds the city’s ordinance was not compliant, the civil case would go to trial to determine what MemorialCare is owed.
The lawsuit the health services provider filed in 2016 demands $42.5 million from the city of San Clemente.
“It would (determine) the damages of the taking of space, if the court found that the city’s zoning was illegitimate,” said City Attorney Scott Smith, adding that if the court ruled in favor of the city, “I don’t know if that would be the end of it. We think that would probably resolve the dispute. I think the city is having the same hope that the property could be actively marketed as a hospital. They want it to be utilized for the designated space, and that’s been kind of the whole issue, whether the owner has been trying to keep it closed or sell it.”
Tony Struthers, vice president of Saddleback Medical Center, submitted a statement after receiving questions from the San Clemente Times.
“A hearing on the first stage of the case occurred back in February, and the court will be rendering a decision on that part of the case,” Struthers said. “The second phase of the case deals with other issues and will proceed later this year on a separate track.”
Mostly what San Clemente locals have wanted is a hospital, no matter who operates it. As MemorialCare owns the San Clemente property, located at 600 Camino De Los Mares, the operators wanted to turn the facility into an urgent care location. But residents and City Council at the time rejected that notion, opining for an emergency room and hospital facilities.
In 2016, the city zoned the property as required to provide emergency services. That initiated the federal lawsuit from MemorialCare, which claimed the city “spot zoned” the land on which the hospital sits. Best, Best & Krieger, LLP and City Attorney Scott Smith have been arguing on the side of the city to defend its actions.
A decision on whether the city was within its right to do so was expected to be announced in late February or March, but the federal judge who is hearing the case is also hearing the lawsuit between Orange County Catholic Worker and the County of Orange regarding what to do with homeless people who were removed from the Santa Ana riverbed and Civic Center. Therefore, it’s been pushed back for weeks, almost months.
The schedule for the trial date for the second phase of the lawsuit is scheduled for Nov. 14 with deadlines for filing motions scheduled intermittently throughout that time.