Pickering to vote on future of Airport Lands tonight

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Published March 8, 2023 at 9:12 am

A definitive answer on Pickering’s stand on a future international airport in the city’s rural north will likely be delivered tonight and the smart money is on Pickering turning a thumbs down on the proposal, now 51 years in the making.

Ward 2 Councillors Mara Nagy and Linda Cook will have a motion on the floor at the special Wednesday night Council meeting – a continuation of a meeting held February 27 that went on past the curfew – that the City “does not support” an airport on lands designated for that purpose since 1972.

The federal government expropriated 18,600 acres of farmland that year with the intention of building a second international airport to take the load off Pearson, with a goal of being operational by at least 2032 when it was anticipated the new airport would be handing 12 million passengers annually.

The half-century since that day have brought the federal government no closer to building the project and Pickering Councillor Maurice Brenner says it’s time the City stopped wasting time on something that is no longer based in reality.

“There is no business case for this right now,” he said. “There’s just no point in wasting our resources on something we can’t control.”

The project met with stiff local opposition from the start and never really got off the ground, with local opposition initially from People Over Planes, followed by VOCAL (Voters Organized to Cancel the Airport Lands) and since 2005, Land Over Landings. Even the Ontario Government of the day was in opposition, with Premier Bill Davis stopping preliminary work in 1975 when he said his government would not approve the sever, water and roads infrastructure needed to service it.

(A similar venture, Mirabel Airport in Montreal, opened that same year and is now primarily a cargo airport and a classic white elephant, though its supporters insist the circumstances were vastly different.)

Since then the lands have remained largely untouched, though Ottawa handed more than half of the farm and natural habitat lands to the Rouge National Urban Park in 2015. The federal government, however, re-affirmed in 2013 and again in 2015 their intention to hang on to the lands in the event a future airport is needed.

Gary Polonsky, the highly respected founding President of what is now Ontario Tech University (and the long time President of Durham College) was tapped to prepare a report on the feasibility of building an international airport in Pickering. Polonsky concluded in late 2016 that a business case would be required before a decision could be made.

KPMG was then hired by Ottawa to do just that and their Pickering Lands Aviation Sector Analysis report, released in 2020, declared that there will be “sufficient capacity in the southern Ontario airports system … without the requirement to build a new airport” and there was “no immediate need for additional airport capacity in the Greater Toronto Area.”

As well, Pearson Airport’s own Master Plan, published in 2017, declared that current runway capacity would be “sufficient to 2037” without adding the already approved sixth runway.

That, and a statement in the KPMG report that “any decision on the future of the Pickering Lands must be based on a sound business case” was all good enough for Brenner.

“The only consideration where Pickering would support an airport would be if there was a business case for it. And there isn’t one.”

Brenner, who said it’s a “misconception” that Council has always been in favour of an airport because Dave Ryan, who served as Mayor from 2003 to 2022, was a vocal supporter, said it’s time the City started promoting its selling points based on what they can actually control instead of what may be.

“You can’t market it like there’s going to be an airport one day. You have to market on what you have, and Pickering has a lot to offer,” he said. “I think Pickering should stop hedging their bets on something that won’t be a reality for the foreseeable future.”

Current Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe is also a vocal supporter of building an airport, citing estimations that the project could create as many as 50,000 jobs and generate billions of dollars in economic activity. But, like Ryan before him, Ashe is, as Brenner noted, “just one person” and will have just one vote when Nagy’s Notice of Motion comes before Council tonight in what is expected to be a raucous meeting.

 

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