In Pickering, another (bigger) airport battle is reprised

Feds' plan will gobble up more prime farmland, but is it just a cover to allow more sprawl?

While Toronto council grapples with extending the runway at the Island airport and what that decision may mean for the future of the waterfront, in north Pickering, home to some of Canada’s best farm land, the Pickering airport battle won decades ago, is back on the federal government’s radar.

On January 27, Pickering council voted unanimously in support of a motion calling on the federal government to come up with a business case to justify an airport in Durham. The motion is also calling for a full environmental assessment. Residents representing a number of groups packed the council chamber.

“Farmland isn’t just empty land waiting to be developed,” said Mary Delaney, chair of Land over Landings, the nine-year-old organization created to oppose the airport. “It’s the land that feeds us. It’s more precious than oil or gold.”

Much of the once thriving farm belt in north Pickering that was pumping out food for the local region, including Toronto, was expropriated from family farmers in the early 1970s to make way for an airport before the province, nervous about costs, stepped in and killed the plan. The land is now managed by SNC-Lavalin, the Quebec-based engineering and construction firm cited by the World Bank due to its questionable dealings in developing countries.

SNC have been good property managers, by most accounts. It’s the policies of Transport Canada that locals have a problem with. TC insists on offering one-year leases, which pretty well limit farming to cash-cropping, as no long-term planning or infrastructure maintenance or improvements are allowed by such short leases.

Last June, Jim Flaherty, the federal finance minister, gathered key representatives including Ontario transportation minister Glen Murray and local Conservative MP Christopher Alexander for a big, good news announcement: the federal government would deliver on its promise to hand over some 2,000 hectares of the lands expropriated for the airport to build the provincial Rouge Park.

But Flaherty dropped a bombshell, announcing that the remaining 5,200 hectares seized by the feds would be reserved for an airport and commercial development.

Just like in 1972, when the then Liberal government floated plans for an international airport in Pickering, no one was forewarned.

Flaherty referred to the 2011 Greater Toronto Airports Authority’s (GTTA) Needs Assessment Study Report as the basis for his decision.

The GTTA projected that an airport would be needed east of Toronto at some point between 2027 and 2037.

Land over Landings dismisses the study, claiming it uses inflated traffic forecasts from Transport Canada to justify an airport. GTA airports are hardly stretched these days.

Pearson International is operating just over half capacity, and John C. Munro Hamilton International Airport at only thirty-six per cent. The City of Hamilton has made its airport one of the cornerstones of its long-term economic growth strategy. A proposed regional airport east of Toronto is the last thing it wants.

According to a 2002 PricewaterhouseCoopers study on the Hamilton airport, the area east of Toronto would account for only 11 per cent of the regional population, compared to 45 per cent west of the city by 2022.

Many wonder if an airport in Pickering will suffer the same fate as Mirabel, which the Liberal government built in the 1970s to service Montreal.

Today, Mirabel is used primarily for cargo freight and is often cited as an example of failed airport policy.

The concern that another airport will gobble up more prime farmland touches on wider concerns about urban sprawl.

The Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) gave the go-ahead in December to develop more than 3,040 hectares of green fields in the village of Seaton, right next door to the proposed Pickering airport site, for massive commercial and residential development. It’s poised to become one of the largest developments in Canadian history.

Developers envision an integrated community, where residents live and work in the same town with easy access to transit, amenities and community plots to grow vegetables. While 60 percent of the parcel will be reserved for green spaces, 1,250 hectares of some of the best farmland in the entire country will be lost forever once it’s built.

The Neptis Foundation, which generates non-partisan research on the growth and change of urban regions, recently released an assessment of Places to Grow, the province’s blueprint for smart development.

It found that many municipalities are not even meeting minimum targets to intensify land that’s already developed and ensure densities in green fields slotted for development.

Sprawl has not slowed down. Suburbs are growing 160 percent faster than city centres, according to a recent report by the Ottawa-based think tank Sustainable Prosperity.

Politicians like the finance minister may think that commercial and suburban development will serve as an economic shot in the arm for the region – including Flaherty’s own riding in nearby Whitby-Oshawa.

They don’t seem to factor in the hidden costs of such development, borne by municipalities, which shell out loads of cash to support new infrastructure.

Municipalities are also on the hook for future infrastructure maintenance and replacement costs. Property taxes help cover some of the costs, but not all.

And then there are those costs that most developers simply ignore associated with greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, traffic congestion, destroyed ecosystems and of course, destroyed prime farmland.

Marcy Burchfield, the Neptis Foundation’s executive director, suspects that the Seaton mega-development will struggle to fill the commercial property it intends to build.

“Durham region has historically overestimated its need for development to the point where the province stepped in to stop the oversupply of urban land in the area.”

Faisal Moola, director general of the David Suzuki Foundation’s Ontario and Northern Canada operations, believes that Flaherty’s announcement has more to do with commercial development than airplanes.

“The real story here is to not allow Seaton to build out,” says Moola. “I think it’s going to be difficult for the government to build an airport because of the protests. But people generally support suburban development. This is tragic since we know how unsustainable it is.”

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