Plans for 541-Bed Hospital in South Lakeland Rile Neighbors

proposed hospital location

Some residents around Harrell’s Nursery Road off of County Road 540A are having nightmares about screaming ambulance sirens, hovering helicopters and the traffic back-up of nearly 400 cars a hospital shift change could bring.

That’s because Nashville-based HCA Healthcare, one of the largest hospital chains in the country, is hoping a nearly 30-acre parcel will be the site of their 47th hospital in Florida. They are proposing a three-story, nearly 1-million-square-foot facility with up to 541 beds and a helicopter pad on land they bought last year.

The property is west of Valleyview Elementary School, several hundred yards from George Jenkins High School and surrounded on two sides by subdivisions.

HCA officials said 541 beds is an estimate of the maximum potential bed capacity the zoning would allow and not necessarily what they would build.

“The land was purchased for future medical development,” said Debra McKell, director of media relations for HCA Healthcare’s West Florida division. “We are now working through the rezoning process in cooperation with the county.  Our intent is to help support the growing healthcare needs in the area and we look forward to working with the community to provide access to needed medical services.”

For decades, it was a poorly kept secret in the neighborhood that the Judd family lived in three homes on the property, among them Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd.

But as development encroached, with subdivisions sprouting up all around them, and the death of his father in 2020, Judd and his sister decided to sell the property. The buyer, who was unknown to the Judds, had previously been in a contract with the family and contacted them again last year with a price they couldn’t refuse.

“I know it was a law firm from Tennessee and they didn’t disclose who they were” representing, said Judd, who split the $4 million windfall with his sister.  Judd has built a lakeside home with his wife of 50 years elsewhere in Polk County. Another parcel of the property the Judds did not own sold for another $2.1 million.

While he didn’t know who the buyers were, he said he put several caveats in the contract — that no strip clubs or medical marijuana distilleries would be built on the property.

The current owner of the property is listed as June 35 LLC.  A check of corporation records on the state’s sunbiz.org website shows a manager of June 35 is Samuel Hazen, the chief executive officer of HCA Healthcare. The address for the LLC is the address of HCA Healthcare in Nashville.

A May 5 staff report to the Polk County Development Review Committee recommends approving a zoning change from “Residential Low” to “Institutional-1.”

See the full report here or at the end of this article.

Update: The issue had been scheduled to be heard by the Polk County Planning Commission on July 6, but it has ben delayed until Oct. 5.

“Staff is recommending approval because we believe that a modest sized hospital can be placed on this property in a manner that it is compatible with the surrounding residential community, the nearby schools, the environmental limitations, and the available infrastructure. However, approval of a binding site plan … is essential to ensure that the public is involved in the design process,” the report states. “Since the applicant is a major medical provider of hospitals throughout the United States, it is justified to single in on one particular type of institutional use. Conscientious scrutiny in design of this site is necessary for a hospital at this location.”

The report acknowledged multiple drawbacks to the site, including “the potential for (traffic) overburdening Harrell’s Nursery and Peterson Roads. There is also the potential for peak hour traffic conflicts with two of the nearby schools. The (30-foot) slope of the roadways is also a limitation on the potential access points. These issues will play heavily into the site design approval. There are ample capacities of all the necessary urban services. However, the area lacks mass transit services.”

Staff wrote that the county has invested a lot of money and infrastructure throughout the last 20 years in improving the roadway network in the area by widening both 540A and Lakeland Highlands Road from two to four lanes. But they acknowledged that Harrell’s Nursery Road and Peterson Roads “may potentially carry the majority of the traffic leaving this facility during the (peak) hour. A hospital located on this property will significantly alter the current rate of travel on these roads, but will not overburden them physically. There will be pressure to signalize the intersection at Harrell’s Nursery Road, but that will be difficult since Pollard Road is currently signalized within approximately 1,300 feet.”

In addition, there is no public bus service along that roadway, even though it has a high population concentration, with dozens of subdivisions built there in the last 30 years. The nearest Citrus Connection Transit Route stop – the Bartow Express to Lakeland stop — is more than two and a half miles away.

The staff report notes that it was made without public input or input from other interested parties.

If the proposed hospital is not built, a substantially smaller, 12,125-square-foot hospital could be built on the site and would require only a minor traffic study by the county.  The land is currently zoned for two to seven single-family homes per acre, or 57 to 202 homes.

Neighbors have organized to fight the proposed hospital, creating a Facebook page, distributing yard signs, organizing pickets and planning to show up in full force at an upcoming Polk County Commission meeting. Some say they would prefer another subdivision; among them is Joseph Xanthopoulos, 59, who lives half a mile north on High Ridge Loop with his wife.

“I worked at a hospital located in the middle of a neighborhood built around it over years. It was not a positive force for most residents of that neighborhood,” Xanthopoulos wrote in a Facebook post. He gave LkldNow permission to use his comments. He previously worked as a fundraiser at Elmhurst Memorial Hospital in Illinois. “Ambulance noise, people coming and going at all hours, speeding traffic, helipad zoning battles. Eventually the hospital moved to a site far from neighborhoods.”

He also questioned the need for another hospital in the area when Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center is 10 miles north and Bartow Regional Medical Center Baycare is about six miles south. In addition, he said another hospital will add to the shortage of healthcare workers in the area.

“How can this county possibly justify a need for more hospital beds?” Xanthopoulos asked.

According to the staff report, there are six hospitals in Polk County that generate hundreds of millions and up to billions of dollars in profits:

  • Bartow Regional Medical Center Baycare with 72 beds and $369 million in gross patient revenue.
  • AdventHealth Heart of Florida Hospital in Davenport with 193 beds and $1.7 billion in gross patient revenue.
  • Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center with 864 beds and nearly $5 billion in gross patient revenue.
  • AdventHealth Lake Wales with 131 beds and $532.8 million in gross patient revenue.
  • HCA Florida Poinciana Hospital with 76 beds and $1.14 billion in gross patient revenue.
  • Winter Haven Hospital Baycare with 485 beds and nearly $2 billion in gross patient revenue.

HCA already has its foot in the door in Polk County, with the hospital in Poinciana and a stand-alone emergency room on South Florida Avenue across from WalMart.

Lakeland Regional continues to be the major medical player in Lakeland, with major expansions at its main campus in the last decade. It also has plans for South Lakeland.

“Given the continued rapid growth in Lakeland and the surrounding areas, our mission at Lakeland Regional Health has remained consistent. As we work to meet the needs of our community, we are considering many options to expand access to high quality healthcare services,” Kendra Kramer, assistant vice president of marketing and communications for Lakeland Regional Health, said in a written statement to LkldNow. “As a part of this planning, we are continuing to work on adding new locations in south Lakeland, including our location on Highway 98 just south of 540A and a 5.5 acre parcel located on S. Florida Avenue, which we have recently contracted to purchase at a later date. In addition, we have broken ground on a medical office building located on the corner of Kathleen Road and I-4.”

The South Florida Avenue location is just south of Fitzgerald Road in the Medulla area. Kramer did not address HCA’s push into Lakeland.

In addition to LRHMC, Orlando Health has approval for a 136-bed hospital, along with medical office space, a surgical center, a small hotel, and limited supporting retail at Lakeland Highlands Road and the Polk Parkway – about three and a half miles north of HCA’s proposed hospital site. There are plans for Orlando Health to expend its Lakeland hospital to 360 beds when the need arises, officials have said. A large Veterans Administration clinic is also planned for that area.

“There’s going to be overbedding, which happens in growing communities,” Xanthopoulos said in an interview with LkldNow.  “Right now there are enough beds. They’re going to come out with a study that says there aren’t but there is. I just don’t see the need at this point – not at that location.”

However, Orlando Health did a feasibility study in early 2020 and showed a need for 600 additional beds in the area.

The proliferation of new hospitals stems in part from the state no longer requiring a Certificate of Need for general and specialty hospitals. According to the staff report, beginning in 1968, Florida required any new, converted, expanded, or otherwise significantly modified healthcare facility, including hospitals, skilled nursing facilities, hospices, or intermediate care facilities for the developmentally disabled, to achieve a Certificate of Need from the state.

“This was an arduous, costly, and time-consuming process. In June 2019, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 21 into law, eliminating portions of Florida’s Certificate of Need program for hospitals,” the report states. “Exempting general and specialty hospitals from the Certificate of Need requirement removed a barrier to entry and created new opportunities for providers, who previously were limited to acquiring existing facilities in certain geographic areas through a change of ownership. New hospital providers may now build new facilities or expand their services in any geographic area of Florida. In addition, existing hospital providers may engage in construction and renovation, or expand their existing service offerings and bed counts without obtaining a need determination and additional regulatory oversight.”

Local experts said a helipad at the hospital is not a sure thing and a number of factors are at play here, including what type of facility is built, what services it will provide and the number of beds it will eventually have. In addition, the hospital could work with the school district to make sure shift changes are staggered so as not to interfere with school drop-off and pick-up.

A hearing on the matter had been scheduled for Wednesday, July 6th, but it has been postponed until Oct. 5th in the county commission offices at 330 W. Church St. in Bartow. It is expected to be the first of several public discussions about the proposal.

A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the amount the property sold for. It was $6.1 million. The Judds split $4 million and a second entity, NAVJAY 540A, managed by Rajesh Lall of Winter Haven, sold its portion of the property for an additional $2.1 million.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 863-272-9250.