Frustration was evident at a public meeting Monday as Niagara-on-the-Lake doctors explained why they hope to relocate to a new medical centre beside Crossroads Public School.
With a deadline for a rezoning decision to allow construction on the wellness centre to proceed, Dr. Karen Berti spoke to council about the process that has brought 11 local doctors, members of the Niagara North Family Health Team, to the site they have unanimously chosen for a new, purpose-built modern facility at Line 2 and Niagara Stone Road.
Doctors' leases in the Niagara Medical Centre will expire at the end of 2019, and family physicians in the hospital, now owned by the town, expect to have to vacate the building in October 2019.
Due to “complicated” leasing agreements, the imaging and physiotherapy departments will close at the end of June, she said.
The meeting drew a large crowd with audience members standing in the aisle and lobby to listen to two-and-a-half hours of discussion about whether the hectare of property should be rezoned to commercial from its current residential zoning to allow property owner Lloyd Redekopp to build a two-storey facility that would house all 11 doctors under one roof, and would include a pharmacy, a palliative care office and lab, imaging and physiotherapy services.
Berti spoke of four-and-a-half years spent trying to find a solution that would allow doctors to continue to provide health care in the community, including a “transparent, extensive” site selection process they went through at their own expense to find the best location for a new medical centre once their first choice — a community hub on town-owned property — was stalled by lack of council support.
In response to a question from Coun. Martin Mazza about a letter sent to patients by the physicians to warn they might have to leave town if they don't get the necessary rezoning, Berti said, “we want to remain in the community but we also need to caution if we are not successful with a rezoning application, due to time constraints, we will need to explore other options. Some of those options might be outside Niagara-on-the-Lake boundaries.”
The risk is that doctors might scatter, “and the option of a one-stop shop will not be available moving forward,” she said.
“We will be looking elsewhere. Where it will be I do not know. I haven't gone through that process yet.”
“We do not want to leave the community but we've got to start thinking about ourselves at some point. We've spent a lot of time trying to think about everybody else. We don't know what the future holds.”
Mazza also put Berti on the spot about rumours in the community that some doctors will be part owners of the new building, but she repeated Redekopp's earlier answer to the same question — he is the sole owner of the property at the moment, although that could change.
“You never know,” he said.
“The future is uncertain,” Berti echoed.
Coun. Paolo Miele asked Berti a question he said is on the minds of many residents — why not stay in the Niagara Medical Centre, where the majority of the doctors already have offices.
Anthony Annunziata, the owner of that property, already has site plan approval for an addition with enough space to offer all the services doctors hope to have in the new building, Miele said.
Berti repeated the factors considered in the site selection process, saying anything beyond that was subject to confidentiality agreements.
While several supporters encouraged council to approve the rezoning, residents of the neighbourhood spoke of their concern of increased traffic adding to what is already a congested area on Niagara Stone Rd. and on Line 2, especially in the summer, and safety concerns for Crossroads students.
M.J. McGraw, a member of the patient advisory council of the NOTL health team doctors, said the group has been kept informed and asked for input, and has studied the doctors' plans and vision.
“We've decided this is a good decision, a good alternative to the community hub,” she said, adding as a board member of the local palliative care service, she's especially pleased that organization will have space in the new building.
Others spoke of how much they respected and appreciated their doctors and how they believe NOTL residents are fortunate to have them in their community.
“Nobody could understand their needs better than them. I hope we can keep the doctors in the area and get the rezoning done,” said Ricardo Street resident Art Frank, who had needed stitches when he accidentally sliced his hand while carving a Christmas turkey, and who has a healthy daughter who was successfully treated for cancer.
Bruce Caughill, the father of three daughters who have attended Crossroads Public School, said he has no safety concerns due to the location, and that in his opinion, “neither should council.”
“To insert anyone else's preferences does a great disservice to our heath care providers,” he said.
Those who spoke of their worries about increased traffic included Line 2 resident Rudy Kuijer, who had nothing but praise for his doctor, who he said has helped his recovery from two traffic accidents, one which occurred in front of the former Virgil Public School.
“I'm not here to demean the doctors or the building they want,” he said. “We're here for rezoning, and this is in my backyard.”
His neighbourhood has seen extensive residential growth and an increase in traffic in recent years, he told councillors, adding he doesn't think commercial zoning belongs beside a public school.
Kuijer said he's done his own traffic study in the neighbourhood, and witnessed a number of cars roll through stop signs or not slow down at all. He said a high turn-over of vehicles at the medical centre would make the situation even more dangerous.
“Do they deserve the building? Yes they do, but not at that site.”
Paul Lett, a Line 2 resident who lives directly across from the proposed site, also spoke of the traffic impact if the new building is approved. Niagara Stone and Line 2 roads are both heavily used by parents and school buses, and Niagara Stone is often backed up from the school to the traffic circle down the road, he said.
He asked what type of traffic controls the town would put in place if the rezoning is approved, and suggested although a traffic impact study was carried out recently on a weekday over an eight-hour period, another one should be done during the summer.
Ward Simpson, former owner of the Niagara Medical Centre, said he thinks the site now owned by Annunziata is a better location, being half-way between Virgil and the Old Town, with easier access to residents of Queenston and St. Davids, lots of parking and an addition that can be completed by the end of the year “if all goes well.”
He sees no need to rezone residential property when the doctors can stay where they are, he said.
The traffic study — completed by the developer — is still in draft form, and will likely be available by the end of the week. At that point it will be subject to peer review by a town-chosen consultant, councillors heard.
A representative of Paradigm Transportation Solutions, the company that carried out the study, was at the meeting and said the study found no problems with traffic and no need for improvements looking forward five years.
Traffic volumes don't warrant a light on Niagara Stone Road at Line 2, or a left turn lane into the site, he said.
There was little discussion from councillors, who will wait until they have the traffic impact study and a marketing analysis in front of them, as well as recommendations from the planning staff, before making a decision on the required rezoning.
It will likely be July before the staff report is completed and presented to council, they were told.