By Stephen Petrick
Algonquin Highlands council wants more time to review a zoning application that would allow a new hybrid tourism resort-health centre to offer more services.
The decision to defer on the application, which would allow Dimensions Algonquin Highlands to offer a variety of health services including a medical clinic and therapy sessions, was pleasing to some neighbours who oppose the business. Yet, it won’t likely stop the resort from opening to guests soon at its location at 1218 Canopy Lane.
Elected officials made it clear they’re not trying to reject the new business, which intends to capitalize on the new “wellness tourism” industry and offer guests an opportunity to work on their health through a variety of services, including psychedelic therapies.
“We like to be progressive in Algonquin Highlands,” said Mayor Carol Moffatt, as the decision to defer was made at the Thursday, July 21 morning council meeting, which was held at the municipal building and broadcasted to a virtual audience. “But we like to be progressive and get it right.”
Moffatt, who had previously been hesitant to take one side or the other in debates over whether Dimensions Algonquin Highlands was good for the community, offered that the new venture is “exciting.”
“It’s cutting edge,” she continued. “It’s not a denial, it’s just a [request for a] reframed document.”
She also said that, although there’s been some opposition to the resort given that it’s not a typical tourism business, she recalls other zoning issues in the past drawing more opposition, so she’s confident Dimensions Algonquin Highlands can eventually open smoothly.
The decision to defer will allow people from the company, which is officially known as Dimensions Health Centres Inc., to work with Algonquin Highlands chief planner Sean O’Callaghan and fine tune the application.
The application raised several safety and legal questions to councillors, such as how Dimensions plans on ensuring drugs on the site are stored safely.
Dimensions already has more than 20 staff working on the site, training and preparing to welcome the resort’s first guests, likely in the fall. Those guests will have to pay out of their pocket to attend, as the centre’s services are not covered under the Ontario Health Insurance Plan.
The opening will complete a long and trying process for the company. It was originally given permits to begin construction of the resort, which was on land already zoned for tourism. But when Algonquin Highlands officials learned it would not operate like a typical tourism resort and planned on offering health services, a stop work order was issued because the area wasn’t zoned for health services.
The zoning application, which could be resolved as soon as the next council meeting, scheduled for Aug. 11, is likely the last major hurdle for the business to clear before fully opening.
The July 21 council proceedings included a public meeting, where residents could voice their thoughts on the application.
Three residents who live in the area – Amber Meirik, Carolyn Dartnell and Jim Spurgeon – spoke against the facility, citing a variety of reasons. The dominant theme was that they were concerned that Dimensions operates like a tourism resort, but really wants to be in the health business. They feel a rural area isn’t the right place for a health centre as it would lead to increased traffic, environmental concerns and safety issues, particularly if people at the site are on drugs.
Yet, after the meeting Meirik and Dartnell both reported to the Haliburton Echo/Minden Times they were pleased with council choosing to defer a decision, expressing that they were glad their elected officials were scrutinizing the application.
“I would have been happier if they completely voted it down, but I can’t emphasize enough the release I felt when I saw that councillors were listening to my concerns,” said Meirik in a phone call later that morning.“That made me feel an incredible sense of relief.”
In an email, Dartnell wrote, “I think it is amazing that two women can stand up against a multi-million-dollar company and be heard. Congrats to the council for hearing us and deferring the vote.”
During the meeting, councillors expressed that some of the concerns addressed by the presenters were issues that the municipality cannot control. They explained that the planning department and a zoning application can’t weigh in on matters of whether a business should be obliged to put up a gate or how a new business might impact traffic at the local airport.
Deputy Mayor Liz Danielsen said all the municipality can do is look at issues it has control over and build a good working relationship with the applicant.
“I’m hoping there can be a continued working relationship with Dimensions; unfortunately a lot of concerns are outside of our jurisdiction,” she said.
Throughout the process to get Dimensions up and running, its chief executive officer, Chris Dawson, has emphasized that the resort is not a drug rehabilitation centre.
Also, in a spring interview with the Haliburton Echo/Minden Times he explained the benefit of a facility like Dimensions is it can provide people a safe, supervised space to take medicines, while under the care of therapists.
A press release issued by the company in the spring said Dimensions will offer guests “healing modalities and plant medicines” including “cannabis and cacao, as permitted by the local municipality.”
It also intends to allow guests to use psilocybin – more commonly known as magic mushrooms – to guests who have received approval by Health Canada to do so through a special access program.