With a change of season coming to north Pickering, local residents know the spring will bring three things: Crops will come up, houses will come down and the fight against the proposed Pickering airport will move forward into its fourth decade.
Residents are currently celebrating 40 years of airport resistance – a rally brought out 200 people in Brougham last week. They are repudiating the federal study that last summer predicted an airport would be needed by 2027, worrying about the accelerated demolition of area houses and, finally, hoping that the community might be revived by rethinking the way farming is done in the area.
Underpinning all these issues was the spring day in 1972 when farmers turned on the radio while milking cows and learned their farms would soon be owned by Transport Canada. In all, 750 families were stripped of their property when Ottawa expropriated 7,500 hectares of prime agricultural land and raised the possibility of constructing a major airport there to take pressure off of Pearson International Airport in Toronto.
Generations have come and gone since that announcement, but Lynn Clark knows the battle isn't over. She and her husband had been renting a house on Reesor Road from the government for 26 years, until her husband's death last September. A month later, she, her son and her pregnant daughter got an eviction notice. Ms. Clark said that when the government stopped maintaining the property, the roof deteriorated and mould started to spread through the house. She expects the house will be knocked down instead of fixed.
Pickering regional Councillor Peter Rodrigues sees this as a strategy of "planned depopulation." He said that close to 80 demolition orders have been written for houses, many with heritage standing, on the airport lands since last summer.
"Demolitions have really stepped up in the last year. They falsely believe that, with fewer people, there will be less of a protest if the airport goes through," Mr. Rodrigues said.
Sandra Norris can't say if she'll be on hand to protest. She lived in a Brougham house for 25 years until the furnace was deemed unsafe in 2005. Her family was evicted and in 2010 the house was destroyed by the kind of "suspicious" fire that she says is common in the area where empty houses often fall victim to vandalism.
"It's tough to watch houses all around come down one by one," Ms. Norris said. "There's never a settled feeling. You don't know when you are going to get the letter."
Transport Canada spokeswoman Maryse Durette said 32 vacant buildings were demolished last year, with another 44 planned for this year.
"Demolition of vacant structures is the single most effective way to ensure that health, safety and liability risks are mitigated to protect individuals who venture into or near them," Ms. Durette said.
In some cases, new commercial tenants are allowed in vacant buildings, she said, noting that commercial leases are more viable than residential leases because a commercial tenant assumes responsibility for property maintenance. Also, residential lease rates are often less than annual costs. Ms. Durette said that residential leases are an "unsustainable business model" and a burden to taxpayers.
This spring, the department is scheduled to release a long-term land use and management strategy that will map a footprint for the proposed airport. The answer to where the runways might go will raise questions, since the government expropriated about four times as much land as needed for a major airport. What is done with the remaining 50 square kilometres will determine the agricultural future of the area.
Ronnie Tapscott's family has been farming the area since 1958. Before expropriation his family had a dairy farm but, as a tenant, the 49-year-old doesn't feel he can invest in things like dairy quotas, or even irrigation, storage sheds or drainage.
He now grows corn, soy and wheat on 283 hectares of land he leases from the government one year at a time. He says almost no vegetable produce is grown on the airport lands.
"People would like to see more market gardens. You can earn more per acre that way, but those plots require more labour," he said, indicating a preference for cash crops when there is no certainty from year to year.
And so, says local resident Michael Robertson, instead of putting fresh produce in nearby stores, this preserved patch of Class 1 and 2 agricultural land in the heart of the GTA grows grain for cattle, soy for tofu and corn for ethanol.
Forty years ago Mr. Robertson was occupying 150-year-old farmhouses to keep backhoes from demolishing them. More recently he has been discussing the idea of an agricultural preserve with Ontario Farmland Trust. He says that since the government already owns the land, it's a perfect opportunity to give long-term leases on smaller plots of land for a new generation of farmers.
"This isn't pie in the sky," Mr. Robertson said. "It's bread on the table."
Special to The Globe and Mail