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Pickering airport proposal is 50 years old. Opponents hope it will finally be scrapped

Click to play video: 'Feds issue request for new study on Pickering Airport lands'
Feds issue request for new study on Pickering Airport lands
RELATED: Canada's Transport Minister has issued an RFP to consult on the possibility of an airport in Pickering. The contentious idea has been bounced around since the lands were set aside 50 years ago, but advocates say the federal property should be used for farming. Frazer Snowdon has more. – Apr 21, 2023

After decades of protests against a long-standing proposal to build an airport in Pickering, Ont., opponents of the project are optimistic it will soon be abandoned for good.

Those hopes hinge on two recent developments: a Pickering council vote declaring a lack of support for an airport and a suggestion from the federal government that a newly-announced study could ultimately conclude that an airport on the Pickering Lands “is not required in the long term.”

Those who support the airport argue, however, that it would provide a “rare opportunity” to boost the region’s economy and attract investments.

The federal government’s final decision on the proposal will follow results of a Transport Canada study on airport capacity needs in southern Ontario, announced in April.

The Pickering Lands span 18,600 acres of land in Pickering, Markham, Ont., and Uxbridge, Ont., located 56 kilometres east of downtown Toronto, that the federal government acquired in 1972 for the development of an airport. After three years of protests, the development was put on hold in favour of expanding Ontario’s already-built airports.

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Since then, Ottawa has leased portions of the Pickering Lands to several residential, commercial and farm tenants. Nearly 10,000 acres were given to Parks Canada for the creation of the Rouge National Urban Park.

The remaining 8,700 acres of the Pickering Lands belong to Transport Canada for a potential future airport. A report commissioned by Transport Canada in 2016 ultimately concluded that a new airport is not expected to be required in southern Ontario before 2036, based on projected demand.

Last week, Pickering city council passed a motion to renege the city’s support for the airport, citing the report commissioned by Transport Canada and the city’s own commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

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Just a few days earlier, Transport Canada announced a request for proposals to hire an aviation services contractor for a new study on airport supply and demand in southern Ontario, in response to significant growth expected in the region over the next two decades.

Transport Canada said in a news release that the study “is a first step towards making a final decision to address future airport capacity constraints in the region, and on the future of the Pickering Lands.”

The release also noted that the federal government has “no intention” to build an airport on that land “in the near term and the conclusions of the study could lead, for example, to a determination that an airport on the Pickering Lands is not required in the long term.”

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For Mary Delaney, chair of the conservation group Land Over Landings, the wording of that news release was significant.

“We have never, ever seen Transport Canada say there might not be an (Pickering Lands) airport,” said Delaney, whose organization has protested the Pickering airport development since 1972.

“The writing is on the wall.”

Delaney said the remaining Pickering Lands should be incorporated into the Rouge Urban National Park.

First-term Pickering Mayor Kevin Ashe, a councillor since 2003, was the only member of council to vote against the motion declaring a lack of support for the airport last week.

“I don’t think anybody can disagree that an airport would be an economic driver in regards to job creation and economic opportunities,” he said in an interview prior to that vote.

“Pickering’s on the verge of a population explosion. We need not only homes to be built in a fast manner, but jobs to support those new residents.”

Mark Brooks, who moderates the Friends of Pickering Airport website in support of the airport’s development, said aviation professionals in that group maintain that Ontario’s aviation industry will eventually require a new international airport.

“Because of the aviation dead zone in the area surrounding Pickering, we will need an airport at some point,” said Brooks, a commercial pilot and flight instructor by trade. “Canada’s economy is based on global trade interactions. That means the need for local, accessible aviation.”

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Jennifer O’Connell, the Liberal MP for Pickering-Uxbridge, said she’s glad the Transport Canada study will make a determination on the Pickering airport proposal.

The former Pickering city councillor said there’s no community support for the airport.

“I have strong direction from the public and the community,” she said. “Pickering is a non-willing host.”

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