Appeal wait leaves clinic in limbo

Neebing, Ont. — Joseph Zawada’s frustration can be heard in his voice as he continues to wait for an appeal to be heard by the Ontario Land Tribunal that is holding up his plan for a medical clinic in the Municipality of Neebing.

Zawada, who owns an 18-acre piece of property at the corner of Boundry Drive and Highway 61, went before Neebing council twice in 2019 asking for zoning and official plan amendments to have his land zoned rural/general commercial rather than agricultural. The council approved the change in August of that year.

The move drew an appeal from Thunder Bay Co-op Farm Supplies that the land should remain agricultural, but that appeal still has not been heard by the Ontario Land Tribunal in over three years — partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Yes, (the appeal process is still going), but how long it takes? I don’t know,” said Zawada. “Administration process takes forever. Otherwise, we’d have businesses in (the Municipality of Neebing).

“The process is going nowhere. It’s Canada, it is not the United States.”

Zawada’s vision is to bring a medical clinic to Neebing that includes doctors, X-ray apparatus, physiotherapy, dentistry and a pharmacy.

Most of Neebing’s previous council were behind the medical clinic proposal and with only one new face on council this term — Katherine Hill takes over from newly-elected Neebing Mayor Mark Thibert for the Blake Township councillor position — the push from council for a medical facility should continue.

“Unfortunately, we have to wait for the appeal process (on Zawada’s offer) to build that medical centre on the corner of Boundry Drive and Highway 61,” said incumbent Crooks Township councillor Brian Wright. “There’s a couple of fellas (in Thunder Bay) interested (in building a medical clinic) but, of course, they’re waiting for this appeal process. Who knows when that will be? It’s up to the powers-that-be to decide when they want to hear it. . . . (Government) sure drags their feet on these things.”

Thunder Bay Co-op Farm Supplies general manager Darren Fisk said they’re group isn’t opposed to a medical clinic in the community, just not on farmland.

“It’s got nothing to do with not supporting a rural medical facility. It’s 100 per cent to do with not supporting the reduction in prime agricultural land,” said Fisk, who authored the lengthy appeal letter to the OLT in September 2019. “It’s a very slippery slope. . . . How much agricultural land in the Thunder Bay district has been removed over the last 50 years from production? There’s been a lot.

“Even if (Zawada) relocates to one corner of the property, once you start, it’s never going back to agriculture. It’s not just dirt. The agricultural land in that area is considered some of the best agricultural land in Ontario. It’s not just a plot of dirt where some trees got cleared. . . . There’s so many other parcels of land in Neebing that they could go on that aren’t agricultural.”

Thunder Bay Farmers Co-op chairman Gerrit Cramer, a Slate River Valley dairy farmer, feels there’s enough infrastructure in Neebing already and a clinic shouldn’t come at the cost of farmland.

“Why does stuff like that have to be out on farmland?” said Cramer. “We’re trying to protect the farmland. It becomes a snowball effect when you get more places in place. We have enough infrastructure that way.

“Our farmland is getting taken over as it is. There’s lots of places further (south of Zawada’s property) that aren’t farmland. (Zawada’s property) is right in the breadbasket of farmland. Why doesn’t he move a little further (south)? Why would you want to be in the farmer’s area?

“We got enough stories already. If I had my preference, I wouldn’t have any stores around here if we could. Farmland — they’re not making any more of it. People have got to start thinking this way. You’ve got to preserve the farmland.”

Zawada has indicated to the municipal office that he would like to build the clinic where the existing garage is situated on the property due to the quality of the well water.

John Nagy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle-Journal