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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)
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)


The 40-year argument: A Pickering airport, or farmland? Add to ...

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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