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Mary Delaney, left, and Pat Valentine of the activist group Land Over Landings near Pickering, Ontario on August 29, 2013.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

If there is anywhere left for Torontonians to find patches of bucolic, fertile farmland close to the city, it's 50 kilometres or so east in Pickering.

On a summer day, fields carpeted in hues of green spread from undulating back roads. Descend a little hill or corner a gentle bend, and a farmhouse can be found nestled in each fresh vista.

Yet 18,600 acres of this area, acquired by the federal government in 1972, remains at the centre of a debate as vociferous as the land is calm, with Ottawa's recurring plan to build a major airport in Pickering.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's announcement in June renewed a plan to develop an airport – a plan which has been in limbo for four decades. For a strong community of activists and local residents, the arguments against an airport are the same as they were in the seventies, with the added emphasis this time on protecting the area's rich soil for farmland to feed Toronto. Yet, there are also plans to develop parts of the land for businesses, bringing further uncertainty, say activists.

The latest newsletter this week from Land Over Landings, the group leading the opposition to the airport, is calling for volunteer teams to sell signs and buttons at public events and food markets. The group is advertising for a graphic designer to create posters and a fundraiser to help out, while a host of like-minded environmental and grassroots associations from the Ontario Federation of Agriculture to the GTA Agricultural Action Committee have lent their support. The summer, the newsletter says, has been "a blur of activity."

Born under the Trudeau government, the airport plans have been to build a second, large Toronto hub, initially a Toronto version of Montreal's ambitious Mirabel airport – which is now widely considered a white elephant and used primarily for air cargo.

By 1975, the protest movement People or Planes had galvanized opposition so strongly that the Ontario government backed away, shuttering the proposal and leaving the airport plans in limbo for decades. Now, land advocates and activists are gathering again in force – but this time, the focus is a little different. When People or Planes garnered widespread attention for its cause, people at that time had been expropriated from the land acquired by the federal government. Families were being moved, their lives uprooted. That's less the case now.

"We understood two things," said Pickering resident and organizer Mary Delaney about the new iteration of the movement. "One: It wasn't so much about people anymore, so People or Planes wasn't really the point. It's about land. Because after 40 years, the communities had been destroyed." Like others on the federally expropriated land, she doesn't own her family's home or the land.

Also different this time is that "just being opposed to an airport really wasn't what we want to be about," Ms. Delaney said. "We wanted to be for something. If you cancel an airport, and then you put houses and development and Wal-Marts and parking lots [there], it's no different. You can't grow food through a runway or a parking lot."

The crux of Land Over Landings' argument is that the area's prime Class 1 soil, ideal for diverse crops, has been neglected and squandered in order to depopulate the land for a future airport. The land is vital and could be a valuable source of food for Toronto and the region. Land over Landings sees this as an urgent need. Mr. Flaherty, on the other hand, said he hopes to see the airport running by 2027.

The government has been leasing land to farmers on short-term contracts, which discourages agricultural businesses from investing in diverse crops, even though the area is so close to Toronto markets and restaurants. The land is being used mainly for nutrient-depleting cash crops, such as corn to make ethanol.

Similarly, Pat Valentine, vice-chair of Land Over Landings, has detailed in a series of photos the dilapidation of country houses due to years of neglect under the imposed rental system for properties.

"It all seems to be aimed at just getting people to say, 'I'm fed up with this. I'm leaving,'" Ms. Valentine said. "Their lease contracts [say] that they can not make repairs or improvements to their properties. Some of them do anyway, because they love them, because they are heritage properties."

As fellow activist Ms. Delaney, who lives on the lands, noted with a laugh, "Our lease says, 'To Her Majesty the Queen hereinafter referred to as the landlord.' In fact, with our insurance, I believe she's the beneficiary. It's all really quite ludicrous."

Mr. Flaherty has defended the renewed airport plan as being a balanced approach to the long-standing question over the land. As announced in June, 5,000 of the government-owned 18,600 acres is being rezoned and given to Parks Canada for the Rouge National Urban Park. Roughly 8,700 acres will then go for the airport, with the remaining land apparently going toward business development, people close to the announcement say.

"We are striking a responsible balance that will allow us to preserve our quality of life, while creating jobs and long-term prosperity in Durham Region and the GTA [Greater Toronto Area]," Mr. Flaherty's office said this summer via email. "With the Buttonville Airport closing, with Highway 407 being extended eastward, and now clarity around the Pickering Lands, Durham Region is well positioned to be a hub for transportation, business development and job creation."

Most observers, however, see a giant question mark hovering over the plans. Representatives of Air Canada, WestJet and Porter Airlines all say that it is premature to comment on an airport which, if it comes, isn't expected to be operating for more than a decade. Brian Buckles, a director of the Green Durham Association, who was expropriated from the land in 1972 and was a prominent member of the protest campaign in the 1970s, doesn't see clarity at all in Mr. Flaherty's announcement. "I think there is a lot of confusion here around what the announcement was basically saying," he said, noting that Transport Canada officials haven't indicated that development of part of the land is a foregone conclusion and that the department has been inviting public comment about how land not needed for an airport should be used.

In a letter to Transport Minister Lisa Raitt, the Green Durham Association argues that 5,000 acres is in fact a reduction of the previous promise by the federal government to protect 7,200 acres, as the passing of provincial Oak Ridges Moraine protection legislation in 2001.

In the meantime, new housing and land development may become as much of a pressing controversy as the airport. As Pickering's mayor David Ryan said in an email, the province's Central Pickering Development Plan in Seaton, a northern section of Pickering, is a development scheme already in the works in an area south of the airport land for up to 60,000 residents and 30,000 jobs. It is the extension of the provincial strategy of swapping provincial land in Seaton with privately owned land in Oak Ridges Moraine, in order to help protect the moraine.

Mayor Ryan sees the Seaton development and the airport acting part and parcel. "While the two-to-one resident-to-job ratio may seem ambitious, we think the airport will play a significant role in helping to reach that 30,000 new jobs target," Mr. Ryan said.

The mayor said that he has never ran for or against the airport, but is more interested in making the best of Ottawa's decision. He said that since 1975, the area has suffered from the uncertainty of what the federal government will do next.

"The ongoing airport saga had created a 40-year planning void in the city of Pickering. No matter what decision was to be made, the city of Pickering was prepared to move forward and plan the best uses for those lands. Now that it has been decided by the federal government, we will leverage the airport to further our economic development and job attraction efforts," he said in an email.

However, the federal government has released no new business model for the airport. And despite Mr. Flaherty's assertion of the need for an airport, the needs assessment report released by Transport Canada in 2011, which Mr. Flaherty cites to justify the airport, says that Toronto won't need a new airport until 2027, or maybe not until 2037 if Toronto's Pearson airport reaches capacity. It could take longer, or it may never reach that point.

"What they say in their conclusion is that the government should hold on to the land if and when an airport is ever needed," Ms. Valentine said. "In other words, the study is very ambivalent about whether this is ever going to be needed. Mr. Flaherty said it was going to be needed by 2027 ... If you read the report, you find that's not what it said," she added.

Groups such as the Green Durham Association argue that the need for farmland is much more pressing than the need for an airport. Or as Charles Godfrey, the leader of the original protest, once said, "We will in fact need a new airport someday, so as to fly in the fresh food we can no longer produce on our own land."

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