A massive new national park inside the GTA will one day be neighbours with a major regional airport, according to plans Ottawa has unveiled for thousands of acres of federal land in Pickering.
The Pickering Lands have been sitting in limbo for more than 40 years since Ottawa expropriated the area in 1972 in the hope of building an airport. Provincial and public opposition quickly scuttled that original plan, but Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced Monday that the airport idea is back on – though it may take a while.
A federal report released in 2011 estimated that around 2027, and possibly as late as 2037, the existing airports in the Greater Golden Horseshoe region in and around Toronto will have reached capacity and another airport will be needed.
Mr. Flaherty noted the report also said it takes about 10 years to create an airport.
"The process will get under way immediately with respect to the proposed airport lands," he said.
Some residents on Pickering's Brock Road, who still remember the area before the expropriation, say they are simply happy to see the issue resolved.
"It's been 40 years," said Erik Maydell, who had his house expropriated in 1972, just months after he moved in. Many of the houses in the area are in need of repairs or abandoned. There is plenty of farmland in the area, peppered with signs opposing an airport.
"I'm glad that they finally made a decision, yay or nay," he said. Mr. Maydell said he has no position on the airport, and plans to move to Nova Scotia to live with his daughter.
Ottawa announced that 3,500 hectares will be set aside for an airport, 2,100 hectares will be opened for development and 2,000 hectares will be transferred to the fledgling Rouge National Urban Park. The Ontario government and the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority have also contributed land, meaning the park will be about 13 times the size of Vancouver's Stanley Park.
The park's goal is to connect urbanites who might not otherwise develop a connection with Canada's system of national parks, many of which are far from major population centres.
Given that the park is accessible by public transit, it should help Parks Canada boost its declining attendance statistics.
The park would run from Lake Ontario in the south to the Oak Ridges Moraine in the north.
But environmentalist Janet Sumner, executive director of the Wildlands League, says the airport will break important connections between the park land and the moraine and could have a negative impact on the park.
"It will diminish the value of the lands inside the Rouge. It will impact the ecology of the entire region," she said. "When you have airports, you're going to find that disturbance doesn't lend itself well to nesting birds and those types of things."
In an interview with The Globe, Environment Minister Peter Kent said the very nature of the Rouge Park means it will live alongside urban development. He pointed out that the park already has two major highways running through it.
"I appreciate and certainly recognize folks' concerns about any new development," he said. The unique character of the park is "that it is in the midst of 20 per cent of the country's population," he said.
Markham-Unionville Liberal MP John McCallum questioned the government's support for an airport.
"I thought it was terrible," he said. "Absolutely no consultation with the citizens … and there's no real economic or business case as to why this airport was really needed."
Toronto Councillor Paul Ainslie, the new chair of the city's parks committee who represents a Scarborough ward, said he is not convinced there is a need for another airport. "Long and the short of it, I still don't think there is a business case for a federal airport in Pickering and I would like to see those lands incorporated into the Rouge Valley national park," he said.
With a report from Elizabeth Church in Toronto