By: Marco Chown Oved Staff Reporter, Published on Tue Jun 11 2013
Plans to have planes taking off and landing at a huge new airport east of the city ran into difficulty only hours after they were announced, with local and provincial politicians complaining they hadn’t been consulted and opponents promising a new battle in the war over the Pickering lands that has been raging for more than 40 years.
Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty designated land for Toronto’s third airport — to be located in Pickering and operational by 2027 — at a hastily organized press event in Claremont Tuesday alongside at least one Ontario cabinet minister who wasn’t informed of the airport plan.
“I’m here to confirm that the uncertainty ends today,” Flaherty said. “The Harper government is moving forward with a responsible and balanced plan for the development and preservation of the Pickering lands.”
Under the plan, the Pickering airport lands, which were purchased by the federal government and set aside in 1972, would be divided into three. Approximately one-third would be set aside for the future airport, one-third will be added to the Rouge Urban National Park and the remaining land will be designated for “economic development,” Flaherty said.
Yet Ontario Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Glen Murray said he thought the announcement was only about the park land and that Flaherty blindsided him with the airport announcement.
“We’ve had no prior discussion, no negotiation,” he told the Star after returning to Queen’s Park.
“They announced they’re proceeding with the Pickering airport in some fashion without great clarity, without any heads-up, without any kind of consultation with us, which makes it hard to work together,” he said.
The federal tactics are not likely to ensure greater provincial co-operation on the project, he said.
In an email to the Star, Flaherty disputed Murray’s claim of being ambushed on the airport announcement.
“Minister Murray is mistaken. He should check with his officials because for more than a week documents have been going back and forth with respect to the airport and the lands to be used for the park,” the federal finance minister said.
Though the government did not release official numbers, maps distributed at the event appeared to designate a significant portion of the 18,600 acres of the federal land for the future airport, making it much larger than Pearson Airport, which occupies 4,400 acres.
Alongside the airport, Federal Environment Minister Peter Kent announced that nearly 5,000 acres of the Pickering Lands will be transferred to Parks Canada, expanding the existing park by about one-third to almost 15,000 acres. This would make the future Rouge Urban National Park more than 13 times the size of Stanley Park in Vancouver.
The remaining land would be designated for “economic development,” though exactly what that means was not made clear.
The airport announcement risks inflaming tensions that have been simmering since the land was expropriated more than 40 years ago. Locals remain bitter and are promising to fight the airport once more.
Anti-airport signs dotted the roads leading to Tuesday’s announcement and local Pickering regional councillor Peter Rodrigues said he wasn’t even invited to the event, but insisted he be allowed inside.
“An airport is neither needed nor wanted,” he said.
Fellow Pickering councillor David Pickles said he thinks any public process to discuss an airport will show strong local opposition.
“The apparent beginning of a process towards an airport is concerning, it is imperative that we fully consider the need, the impact and the cost in a public process before a decision to proceed is made.”
At the announcement, local Conservative MP for Pickering-Ajax, Chris Alexander, who spoke out against the airport before the 2011 election, refused to answer a question about why he had changed his position.
“Building another airport without consultation with the provincial and municipal government, they haven’t done the environmental assessment . . . it’s putting the cart before the horse,” Chow said.
Liberal MP John McCallum (Markham-Unionville) said that the Conservative government hasn’t made an economic case for putting an airport in Pickering.
“If they really think there’s a need for this airport, then prove it,” he said.
He said that growth has been concentrated to the west of the GTA and an airport is an essential part of bringing that growth east.
“Now it’s our turn,” Flaherty said, pledging to personally head up a consultation team for the economic development element of the plan. With 10 years of construction factored in, he said, the new airport should be up and running by 2027.
The Ajax-Pickering Board of Trade applauded the plan, saying the certainty it brings helps businesses plan and develop in the area.
Much of the western portion of the federal lands lies on The Greenbelt, and it appears that some of the land set aside for the airport, and much of the land designated for economic development, would have to be exempted from The Greenbelt to move forward.
The potential problem seems to have been anticipated before the announcement was made. Transport Canada will “work in co-operation with the Province of Ontario to amend the Ministerial Zoning Orders to restrict development in the surrounding lands to activities compatible with a future airport,” according to an information handout distributed to reporters.
The David Suzuki Foundation weighed in, saying it was disappointed with the announcement.
“We’ve written on the economic value of keeping the Rouge farmland and nature,” said director general Faisal Moola. “The Greenbelt is not a place to be building a giant international airport. This is some of the best prime farmland and nature in the city and we think it’s worth protecting.”
Local environmental activists, who were barred from attending the announcement and forced to gather behind orange barriers said they were disappointed with the announcement.
“We’ve known about the federal land transfer to the Rouge for a year now,” said Jim Robb, general manager of Friends of the Rouge Watershed.
“We were hoping they would announce that the park would be expanded further, instead it appears that they want to build an airport on the Greenbelt,” he said. “They’ve awakened a sleeping giant. The whole eastern GTA will get involved now that they’re going to have planes flying overhead.”
With files from Robert Benzie and Bruce Campion-Smith
1. What’s new?
While the federal government has been sitting on the Pickering Airport lands for 41 years, now they’re actually moving forward to build an airport. If federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s timeline is adhered to, construction will begin in 2017 and the airport will open in 2027.
Yes and no. The lands were always intended for an airport, but no one knew when it was going to be built. In 2011, Transport Canada issued a report saying the Greater Golden Horseshoe area would need a new airport by 2037, but no thorough economic analysis has been done.
The original tract Pickering airport land is more than four times the size of Pearson airport and not all of it is needed for a new airport. Some of the land is adjacent to the Rouge Urban National Park and some of it falls within the Greenbelt, so the federal government looks like it has tried to please everyone with a piece of the proverbial pie.
4. Is a new airport needed?
Opponents question whether another airport is necessary and if one is, why it should be in Pickering. Other options include expanding Pearson and/or Hamilton Airport.
5. What obstacles stand in the way of the airport?
Locals have been organized around this issue for decades. Local politicians have been elected on promises to oppose the airport. Conservationists want to see more land protected. But in the end, the federal government owns the land and will build an airport if it wants to, though funding, which could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, hasn’t been secured yet.