The mysterious case of the Ontario monks and a long-term care home that won another Greenbelt development approval

Feb 15, 2024

Concerned advocates of King Township Catherine Flear (left) and Mary Muter say the Oak Ridges Moraine — the backbone of the Greenbelt — must be protected from development. Photo by Abdul Matin Sarfraz/ Canada’s National Observer

By Abdul Matin Sarfraz | NationalObserver.com |  February 15th 2024

Did a monastery and peaceful retreat centre sprawling across Ontario’s protected Greenbelt also once serve as a long-term care facility for aging priests and monks? After two years of determined sleuthing, local environmental advocates say there is no evidence of a former long-term care centre on the sensitive terrain of Oak Ridges Moraine and permission to build a new one should never have been granted.

Under the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act (ORMCA), officials can approve development on the moraine in King Township if the land was previously used for the same purpose. That “pre-existing use” was the rationale given to greenlight a new 160-bed facility last year. But advocates argue evidence clearly indicates there was never a long-term care home at the site.

Apart from the occasional house call, doctors didn’t attend at the monastery, states a letter from an area physician who served Mary Lake Shrine of Our Lady Grace for 50 years. The letter was submitted as part of a formal complaint to two provincial ministries by a citizen’s environmental coalition called STORM (Save The Oak Ridges Moraine) and Concerned Citizens of King Township (CCKT). Freedom-of-information requests filed by STORM and CCKT to the township turned up no paper record of a previous long-term care facility at the site about 60 kilometres north of Toronto. And multiple requests by Canada’s National Observer to the provincial Ministry of Long-Term Care for information about previous licensing for a facility at the site were not answered.

In his letter, Dr. Paul Randall noted: “While they may have hired an occasional nurse from outside, the bulk of their medical care occurred in our King City office, not on site as would always be the case in long-term care in Ontario.”

The lack of proof meshed with the letter submitted by Dr. Paul Randall, who also has never seen any record of a registered long-term care facility at the site. Document submitted by the environment group called STORM (Save The Oak Ridges Moraine)

Quinto Annibale, lawyer for the developer, St. Rita at Marylake Long Term Care Home, and chair of the board, dismissed the coalition’s allegations, deeming them completely unfounded.

Annibale said a long-term care facility has been present on the property since around 1956.

“This has been confirmed by the Township of King in a report accepted by council some time ago,” Annibale said in an email. He went on to say that out of an “abundance of caution,” he received confirmation from King Township’s committee of adjustment that a long-term care centre existed on the lands as a “legal, non-conforming use” as part of the approval.

“Not sure what all the fuss is about,” Annibale added.

King Township says it urgently needs more beds for seniors, as it currently has only 36 long-term care beds for over 27,300 residents, one of the lowest ratios of beds per senior over age 85 in Ontario. And it has the support of the provincial long-term care ministry, which approved the new development in 2023. Annibale noted construction is well underway and the facility will soon be serving the public.

However, the environmental group is determined to stop the project. It is demanding the Ford government investigate the long-term care home approval under the Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights. The request was sent to the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, which confirmed receipt, and to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

After two years of determined sleuthing, local environmental advocates say there is no evidence of a former long-term care centre recently used to justify the construction of a new one on the sensitive terrain of Oak Ridges Moraine in King Township. Photo by Abdul Matin Sarfraz/ National Observer

Approval for the $59-million care home was granted last year by King Township and the province to the landowner, Augustinian Fathers (Ontario) Inc., for the construction of a three-storey facility. Annibale told Canada’s National Observer that the developer, St. Rita at Marylake Long Term Care Home, will operate the home. Both entities, the developer and landowner, are not-for-profit corporations and registered charities. The Ministry of Long-Term Care will fund the care home’s operating costs, with a total provincial investment at Marylake exceeding $350 million over 30 years, Annibale said.

After two years of determined sleuthing, local environmental advocates say there is no evidence of a former long-term care centre recently used to justify the construction of a new one on the sensitive terrain of Oak Ridges Moraine in King Township. Photo by Abdul Matin Sarfraz/ National Observer

But STORM and CCKT members contend the development, which started construction in the fall of 2023, was approved under false pretences and poses “significant risks to the natural heritage on the moraine.” The region is recognized as one of the province’s most important ecological landforms and is dotted with wetlands, kettle lakes, many fish species and sensitive ecosystems.

“There is an absolute and complete loss of democracy in this particular situation,” said Catherine Flear, a member of STORM’s board of directors. “We, as a group of citizens, have been fighting this application for months, and we have brought forward extremely balanced logical information, but it has been completely ignored by the township.”

Flear told Canada’s National Observer the development is not just on the Greenbelt, it is on the moraine, which is the backbone of the Greenbelt and is very important for water supply and natural habitat.

Efforts to build the long-term care centre date back to 2020, when King Township council initially denied Augustinian Fathers (Ontario) Inc.’s request to ask the province for a ministerial zoning order to build the project. However, the following year, King Township planning staff recommended approval on the grounds that it was a pre-existing use.

The environmental group filed a Freedom-of-information request seeking proof of a previous long-term care home on the site, but for 26 months, the applicant refused, forcing the group to file two appeals, the complaint from STORM states. Finally, a provincial adjudicator was assigned to the case and some information was released. However, evidence of a pre-existing long-term care facility was never produced, the complaint said.

The lack of proof meshed with the letter submitted by Dr. Randall, who also has never seen any record of a registered long-term care facility at the site. Randall said all LTC homes in Ontario must be licensed and inspected by the ministries of health and long-term care. Among other requirements, they are mandated to have a medical director, as well as a director of nursing care, he added.

“I have never seen any evidence of this at Marylake, which I feel has functioned simply as a retirement residence for their elderly brothers and priests,” said Randall. The doctor concluded that characterizing the retirement setup at Mary Lake as a “long-term care home” is a significant misunderstanding or exaggeration.

The construction site is situated between Mary Lake and a provincially significant wetland. Environmental advocates say it creates ecological risks and potential contamination from construction activities.

“It’s clear that the degradation of water quality will negatively impact these wetlands and the kettle lakes. The plans, acts and regulations that were put in place to prevent these exact contaminants from harming and destroying sensitive ecosystems on the moraine must be upheld,” said Bruce Craig, chair of Concerned Citizens of King Township (CCKT).

Opponents allege the care facility approval violates Section 14 of the Environmental Protection Act (EPA), the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS), the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Act (ORMCA), and the Federal Fisheries Act.

A statement from the mayor’s office for King Township said the project can be built with sufficient safeguards for the environment.

“The Township of King has a strong track record of protecting green space, and this redevelopment is no exception,” the statement said. “The facility will be constructed entirely on already developed land and limited to three storeys. Comprehensive studies confirm that this new facility represents a significant ecological improvement to the site, including a net benefit to the groundwater, considering the age of the existing structures and infrastructure.”

Both the Ministry of Long-Term Care and King Township also assert that public consultations were conducted prior to approval, ensuring public input was gathered before deciding on a proposal for the long-term care home.

Canada’s National Observer reached out to Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.

By Abdul Matin Sarfraz | NationalObserver.com |  February 15th 2024