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OPINION: Whitchurch-Stouffville and the Pickering Airport

July 17, 2013

Arnold Neufeldt-Fast

Fifteen years ago, long-time mayor Wayne Emmerson told the Stouffville Sun-Tribune: "I'd like to make it clear. I do not support an international airport on these lands. A regional airport, comparable in size to the ones in Buttonville and Oshawa, would suit us." After last month's announcement by federal Minister Jim Flaherty of the construction of an airport on the Pickering lands by 2027, Mr. Emmerson announced to The Sun-Tribune that he would "support the airport," and he looks forward to "10,000 jobs plus spin-off industries" coming to Stouffville, in particular from the "operation of local hotels and restaurants, similar to what is found near Pearson." The announcement and its positive reception by the mayor signal significant changes for Whitchurch-Stouffville, and makes informed debate among residents and the business community urgent.

For many years, this mayor has governed Whitchurch-Stouffville with the motto "Country close to the city." While the town is mandated by the province to attract 10,000 jobs by 2032, the idea of thousands of low-paying service-sector jobs in the hotel and restaurant industry-"like around Pearson"- bears no resemblance to the vision of residents, let alone to our Town's approved economic development strategy.

In more recent years, Whitchurch-Stouffville has attempted to leverage its quality of life in order to grow a highly-trained, highly-educated creative-class economy with small and medium-sized knowledge- and technology-focused businesses. "All future economic development activity must be held up to the quality of life mirror, to examine whether its reflection on the community will improve or undermine local living and, by extension, the new local economy." The business community needs to know if Town Council is jettisoning the current economic strategy and, if so, how hotel and service sector growth could happen for our community at such a distance (20 km) from the planned Highway 7 and Brock Road airport access road. Moreover, like Mirabel International Airport in Montreal, its fate could be that of a cargo airport. There is a great risk that the economic benefits for our community may be entirely negative.

Residents will be particularly interested in the location of the airport flight paths and approaches. The 2004 Draft Plan recommended runway siting is assumed in the 2011 Needs Assessment Report, and is entirely consistent with the June 13 announcement (that is, located immediately east of the CPR rail line). The mayor's nonchalant response to The Sun-Tribune last month will be disconcerting to many: "We are in a flight path now ... to Pearson." On the one hand, the response is simply not accurate-we are not in a flight path to Pearson. And, if a jet did fly over Whitchurch-Stouffville toward Pearson it would be at an altitude of about 1,800 metres (6,000 feet). On the other hand-and more significantly-the mayor is beclouding the real issue: the Pickering Airport Draft Plan has planes descending from 535 to 500 metres directly above three of the town's hamlets-from the west, from Gormley to the Smart Centre, and from the north, from Ballantrae to Musselman Lake. These are no longer flight paths, but "approaches" with planes ascending and descending at lower levels immediately above residential homes. The urban Community of Stouffville will, in turn, be wedged between these two approaches and entirely within a Transport Canada "Bird-Hazard Zone." While the mayor suggests that these differences are inconsequential, residents of the town may have a different experience.

Flight paths and approaches have an impact on quality of life and consequently on property values. Councillor Phil Bannon, whose ward includes Ballantrae and Musselman's Lake, told The Sun-Tribune, "I can't see it having any negative impact on our housing." The response is uninformed; the issue of airport noise and its impact on real estate values is well-documented. In short, "the higher the relative price of a property, the higher the diminution in value." While Ballantrae and Musselman's Lake will have flights directly overhead, the largest of the Pickering runways will be only 5.5 km south-east of Hoover Park Drive and 10th Line; Transport Canada's contour line for a level 25 "Noise Exposure Forecast" for loudness, frequency, duration, time of occurrence, tone, etc., passes within 500 metres of the new Wendat Village Public School. While a 25 NEF is technically acceptable for new development (anything above 25 is likely to produce some level of annoyance, according to Transport Canada ), studies indicate that it has a significant impact on a moderate- to high-economic neighbourhoods: about 50% of home-buyers would find a 25 NEF rating unacceptable, which results in an approximate 15% loss in housing market value.

Mr. Bannon's response to the airport announcement had a fatalistic tone: "This is a long time coming. This is not new news. This is old news. We knew it was coming." He offers no hope of good news, or a strategy toward an alternative future. Like the mayor, but with less enthusiasm, he suggests we embrace what is descending upon us. Some may wonder if he choosing solidarity with the Conservative Party (he ran provincially in 2007) over the good of his constituents. At least Mr. Bannon recommends that residents could contact our Member of Parliament Paul Calandra about the flight path-and so we should.

MP Paul Calandra, in turn, told The Sun-Tribune that while the number of flights and airport capacity remain unknown, "any thoughts people may have of this being a Pearson is definitely wrong... It becomes a priority to replace Buttonville so we can have a general aviation airport sooner rather than later."

These comments deserve scrutiny on two counts. First, Buttonville Airport is merely 170 acres in size; Pearson is 4,613 acres; the Pickering lands designated for an airport (excluding all lands announced for the Rouge Park and other development) is 4,650 acres, i.e., slightly larger than Pearson.

Second, the "most likely" scenario given in the 2011 Pickering Needs Assessment Report by the Greater Toronto Airport Authority-the basis for the June 2013 federal announcement-is for about 11 million Pickering passengers by 2032, or 30,000 per day. The Pickering Airport Draft Plan has always envisioned a stage-one "general aviation operation" beginning with the two runways noted above and demand-driven development. This too is not "new news," and is consistent with the long-term 2032 build-out plan. Technically Mr. Calandra is correct: these numbers are only about one-third of Pearson's current passenger allocations; nevertheless, it is very large-Calgary-sized-and poised for more growth after 2032. "I just don't know why it took so long, governments of all stripes, to finally get on and get it done," Mr. Calandra told The Sun-Tribune. What seems like an obvious and very clear vision to Mr. Calandra-even without a financial plan-is not convincing for many. The inevitability of a Pickering Airport -together with its Montreal twin, Mirabel-may very well be rooted in a 1970s vision of progress, and as such deserves to be rigorously examined.

The above critique may sound like classic NIMBY'ism ("not in my backyard!") - and it would be, if there were no larger alternative vision or option to address our province's transportation needs in a fiscally responsible manner. And there are options.

First, Oshawa (48 km east of Toronto) is only too eager to take up Buttonville's general aviation traffic. Second, and more important, the City of Hamilton has long advocated for an airport expansion; it has huge capacity together with the needed infrastructure and requisite local support for a large-scale international airport. Mayor Bob Bratina was shocked by the Pickering announcement in June, according to The Hamilton Spectator. "Council has made the development of the Hamilton airport one of the key elements in our long-term economic growth strategy, so we hope that we won't see a diversion of scarce resources to this new facility [Pickering] at a time when John C. Munro [International Airport] is on the threshold of becoming the regional alternative to Pearson," the mayor said. In 2012 Hamilton's airport had only 351,000 passengers with capacity for at least 4.6 million and sufficient land for a new runway. The Region of Waterloo Airport also has capacity. A "demand-driven" business plan and tax-payer investment should really begin with expansion discussions and announcements in Hamilton and Waterloo, not Pickering. These regions are very aware that the business case for a Pickering Airport has not yet been made. This will be important for all tax-payers as well.

It is worth noting that the Pickering Needs Assessment Report was written by the Greater Toronto Airport Authority-the people who run Pearson International. Self-interest might explain in part why so little attention is given to high-speed rail in the Toronto-Montreal or longer Windsor-Quebec City corridor. In many jurisdictions high-speed rail has proved highly competitive against regional flyers, and after 9/11 could become a preferred, quicker option where available. A large "Updated Feasibility Study of High-Speed Rail Service in the Quebec City-Windsor Corridor" was completed by the provinces of Quebec and Ontario in June 2010, and suggests the same; it offers a strong business case (minimally) for a Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal route. A similar case has been made for higher-speed rail between Detroit to Chicago-noting that the economics are even stronger with a connection to Toronto. Both a Boston to Montreal route, as well as a New York City to Buffalo to Toronto route are being considered by American administrations. A forward thinking Canadian transportation strategy would understand the economic benefit of linking Canadian and American mega-regions into larger eastern and mid-eastern high-speed rail networks -and it would spare the land from yet another international airport.

The farmers of Ontario have been the most concerned and eloquent opponents of an airport on the Pickering lands. This is not surprising given that the lands make up some of the province's best farmland. "On a clear day, over one-third of Canada's best agricultural land can be seen from the top of Toronto's CN Tower," according to Statistics Canada. In the past fifty years, Ontario has lost over 40% of its farmland, much of which has been Class 1 soil in the Greater Toronto Area. While the June 2013 announcement noted that approximately one-third of the Pickering lands would be set aside for the Rouge Park and for farming, the plan also calls for airport lands larger than Pearson as well as the creation of economic development lands of approximately the same size. That entails the destruction of a huge swath of Ontario first grade farmland. By the time a Pickering Airport is in operation, the United Nations projects another 1 billion will inhabit the globe (to 8.1 billion by 2025). Canadian food security will continue to depend upon a healthy, sustainable local food system. The ability to feed our local population with local sources should not be underestimated.

While it is the job of the mayor and council to help grow our local economy and to be a non-anxious presence in turbulent times, embracing a large-scale airport in our town's backyard-whether enthusiastically or as some kind of fate written in the stars-is something very different. Our local representatives should indicate first and foremost they really are in solidarity with the community as whole, addressing in a thoughtful and informed manner the real concerns that residents have. Moreover, the community expects leaders to "fight the good fight" on their behalf, even in face of what seems inevitable. There are many political options available. In 2011, a group of south-western Ontario mayors organized a "Mayors for high-speed rail" group in order to influence federal and provincial decision makers. There are many reasons why Whitchurch-Stouffville, for example, would want to be a part of such a group. High-speed rail as an explicit alternative to a large-scale airport on the Pickering lands would allow Whitchurch-Stouffville not only to retain its current quality of life, but also to benefit indirectly because of our train link to Toronto. More trains in the GTA would also help to relieve other traffic issues. A good way to start would be for the mayor and council to organize town hall meetings to share information, to hear concerns, to debate options, and then to lead on behalf of the residents of Whitchurch-Stouffville.

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