The debate around a proposed methadone clinic for 527 Wellington Road essentially came down to one issue that was summed by rather succinctly by Ward 8 Councillor Paul Hubert.
“The thing is, 300 metres is 300 metres. And I’m not sure how we cut around that,” said Hubert during a special meeting of the Planning and Environment Committee on Tuesday (Feb. 19) at Centennial Hall.
Approximately 60 London residents — predominantly those living in the area around Sir George Etienne Cartier Public School — attended the public participation meeting. The proposed site for the clinic is in a former paint supply store located on Wellington Road directly across from where St. Joseph’s Health Care is currently constructing the new Regional Mental Health Care London facility.
The committee, including Hubert, chair and Ward 1 Councillor Bud Polhill, Ward 9 Councillor Dale Henderson, Ward 14 Councillor Sandy White and Mayor Joe Fontana voted unanimously to accept staff’s refusal of the application. Ward 6 councillor Nancy Branscombe was absent from the meeting.
Despite the committee’s unanimous acceptance of staff’s recommendation to refuse the application, the issue still has to go before the full council for final approval.
Hubert summed up the feelings of many on the committee, and many in the audience as well, as to why the zoning application should be denied.
“If we are going to have any boundaries, we have to hold to some of those things or otherwise it is just a guess and we are whistling Dixie,” Hubert said. “I just can’t get there in my mind. I can’t figure it out from a planning perspective, from a philosophy perspective.”
Although staff had nearly a half-dozen reasons why it recommended rejecting the application, the key point was the distance from Sir George Etienne Cartier, which is measured as 251 metres “as the crow flies,” a term used by several committee and community members Tuesday evening.
Officials from the applicant, Towards Recovery Clinics, including CEO Cam Crawford, said all relevant criteria had been met, including the distance measure. However, Crawford said the issue was not a straight-line distance between the proposed clinic and the school, but rather the actual distance someone would need to walk or drive a vehicle to reach either location.
“This site is 457 metres walking distance on public sidewalks and more than a kilometre driving distance,” Crawford said. “Unless you are familiar with the neighbourhood, you don’t even know it exists.”
Stephen Couture, a London resident and former city planning official, was among the dozen speakers to step up and present their positions to the committee. Couture said he encouraged councillors to stick to a policy that is just nine months old, but that was also crafted over a nearly two-year process.
The strength of the policy, Couture said, came in how it defined the 300-metre distance from the nearby public school.
“The language of the policy is very clear. The language uses the phrase, must be, not may be, so there is no flexibility and that was the intent of city council,” Couture said. “These facilities must be located beyond the 300-metre threshold.”
Rick Wood was another speaker against the proposal and he used a more emotional argument than Couture’s technical description. The approach makes even greater sense when considering Wood is the principal at Sir George Etienne Cartier.
“Cartier public school is not just where my fence line is and it isn’t just the building, it isn’t the bricks and mortar, it is about the people who are there everyday,” Wood said. “I would like you to help us keep that as a safe, family community. Help me do my job.”
Janet Hunt was the lone person to speak in defence of the application. A registered nurse, Hunt said she couldn’t think of a better place for a clinic to be built.
At the risk of being “the bad dog,” Hunt said that there are a lot of people in London that have problems and that families, “reach out to help others,” particularly in a time of need. “Having a facility like this within the catchment of a major emergency department, and right across the road from where we will have a mental health facility . . . if there are problems, these people can get the help they need as soon as possible.”
After the committee made its decision, Crawford said — and assuming council votes to accept the committee recommendation as well — there are options open to Towards Recovery Clinics Inc. Those options, Crawford said, include a challenge before the Ontario Municipal Board or even looking at alternative sites.
Ward 12 Councillor Harold Usher, who isn’t a member of the committee, but is the area representative on council, said the 300-metre distance was chosen after two years of careful consideration and that it should remain the measuring stick for all applications.
“If you start changing the rules all the time, if you change it 250 metres then someone will come along and change it 225,” Usher said. “There are other locations. We are not trying to chase them out of the city, we are just saying not at that location.”
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