An Aerotropolis, described as a ‘master planned community that develops around an airport’ was identified as the ‘number one strategic priority for economic development in Hamilton’ in the City of Hamilton’s 2005 Economic Development Strategy. The Aerotropolis concept focussed on development of an industrial, commercial and residential community around Hamilton Airport, serving to support the airport’s and the City’s economic development objectives. Air freight activity was emphasized in the Aerotropolis plans, but there was an alternative view that it would be a business park without a strong relationship with the airport. At a June 2005 public meeting about the Aerotropolis concept several attendees raised concerns about how future energy constraints posed by limited oil supplies might affect the project. In response the City Council directed staff to prepare a strategy to deal with the potential fuel crisis and impacts on the Aerotropolis project.
In September 2010 a report concerning the boundary for the Aerotropolis, re-named Airport Employment Growth District (AEGD), was released to the public for review. Hamiltonians for Progressive Development issued a press release listing 20 reasons to stop the AEGD, which would convert prime agricultural land into an industrial zone. An official admitted that the cost of servicing the project would be over $350 million (USD339.5 million), excluding construction of 25 kilometer water and sewer pipes to the airport district, which would be more expensive than typical water infrastructure as fluids would need to be pumped uphill. Storm water management costs were estimated to be over $100,000 (USD97 million) per acre because the lands form the headwaters of four significant streams. Projections of increased flights at Hamilton Airport had not materialized, exacerbating suspicions that the real agenda was not industrial development but residential sprawl. Even if the Aerotropolis did create employment it was expected to be primarily low-wage, with warehousing and trucking firms occupying 70 per cent of the land. The fact that the existing airport business park was 85 per cent vacant raised doubts over viability of the project. Beyond the airport hundreds of acres of industrial land was either vacant of grossly underutilized.
Hamilton Airport is surrounded by prime farmland. Development for freight companies, on 830 hectares of this land, was approved, even though the vacancy rate at established business parks in the area was as high as 85 per cent. Projected infrastructure costs, including roads and a sewage pipeline, of $353 million (USD342.2 million), would be a high level of expenditure for a development anticipated to generate a fraction of this sum, just $52 million (USD50.4 million) annually, in tax revenue by 2031.
A ‘garlic bus’ protest
On 10th October 2010 Hamilton 350 Committee organized a protest to highlight the threat to local food production posed by the Aerotropolis; 50 activists travelled by bus to plant garlic on land opposite the airport, marking out a large 3-5-0 in a fallow farm field. Garlic was chosen because it is easy to grow in Southern Ontario. The coalition of environmental, community, labour and faith groups stated that converting productive farmland into more industrial land, whilst there are already 2,000 empty acres of greenfield industrial parks, was foolhardy in the face of climate change induced threats to global food security. Participants in the garlic planting action were invited to bring symbolic empty baskets to a city council meeting about the Aerotropolis, and a flyer said that farmland around Hamilton Airport ‘could be used to feed several thousand families each year’ was distributed. During the municipal election campaign in autumn 2010 a 74-page report and 2,100 pages of supporting evidence, compiled by opponents of the Aerotropolis, landed on councillors’ desks.
Battle lines between Aerotropolis proponents and opponents – the latter led by Hamiltonions for Progressive Development and Environment Hamilton - hardened and Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) officials scheduled a meeting with interested parties for 23rd May 2012, with a full hearing to follow in the autumn. Opponents said the project should be stopped because of the high cost, brownfield area available for development, importance of preserving agricultural land and the environmental risks to watercourses, woodlots and wetlands. Hamilton Mayor Bob Pratina spoke against the Aerotropolis: “I continue to have grave concerns about moving ahead with the AEGD plan because of the serious risks involved to taxpayers should the promised development to occur at a level that would support the investment of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for the required servicing.”
In October 2012 Hamilton Civic League volunteers conducted a door-to-door survey of 349 households within the Aerotropolis boundary on order to gauge residents’ level of awareness of and support for the plans. A large majority of 82 per cent of surveyed residents did not support the plan. Two thirds claimed to have received notification of the plan from the City Council but many had confused recent mailings from Hamilton Civic League for notices from the City. During door-step conversations most long-term residents cited concerns for loss of their rural lifestyle. The industrial rezoning was being legally challenged and the survey results were due to be presented before the OMB in January 2013. Hamilton Civic League began campaigning to counter the City’s claim of a shortage of land allocated for industrial development. The general public was invited to participate in research of 35,000 pages of tax assessment data to identify all industrial properties along with a land mapping project.
Aerotropolis dubbed a ‘$500 million pitfall’
The review of the 35,000 pages of data confirmed that there was no shortage of available industrial land. The opposite was the case as there was a shortage of business activity to provide jobs on existing vacant and underutilized lands, already serviced with roads, public transport, water and sewers. Hamilton Civic League stated that more jobs could be provided at much less cost than the ‘poorly-located’ Aerotropolis. An article on Raise the Hammer website, by Larry Pomerantz, criticized the costs of the Aerotropolis, referring to it as a ‘$500 million pitfall’, stating that the City had a history of discounting development charges to attract new businesses, heaping more debt on existing businesses and homeowners. He wrote: ‘Why should local businesses be additionally taxed to attract new and potentially competing business?’
On 3rd July 2013 the OMB ruled in favour of the Aerotropolis plan, the largest urban boundary expansion in the history of Hamilton. Appeals from Hamiltonians for Progressive Development and Environment Hamilton had been dismissed. Don McLean, a director of Environment Hamilton, described the decision as “a frustrating one” which did not fully address the group’s concerns over availability of brownfield land in other parts of Hamilton. But McLean said engagement in the process had not been a waste. Since the inception of the Aerotropolis in 2005 opposition to the project had motivated the City to decrease the land area in the AEGD by about 42 per cent. He said: “If citizens hadn’t intervened, we would have had a much larger Aerotropolis in place.”
Hamiltonians for Progressive Development took the battle against the Aerotropolis to Divisional Court, appealing the OMB decision to allow the massive project on Hamilton’s foodlands. Chairperson Michael Desnoyers pointed out the underutilized and abandoned industrial land within the present urban boundary, already serviced and ideally located for rail, truck and ship transportation. The appeal argued that OMB failed to properly consider the availability of brownfield redevelopment opportunities as an alternative to more urban sprawl and that the City had not demonstrated a need for an urban boundary expansion. Desnoyers said the controversial Aerotropolis placed Hamilton at a crossroads: “This is about making fundamental choices about how we want to develop as a city. We can either accept our responsibility to rehabilitate our brownfields or we can use up irreplaceable farmland.”
Appeal against Aerotropolis unsuccessful
The attempt to overturn the Aerotropolis was unsuccessful. The judge did not accept Hamiltonians for Progressive Development’s arguments that the plans were ‘economically risky as well as environmentally unacceptable’. Hamilton City moved to the third OMB hearing to delineate the specific area to be developed for the AEGD, covering approximately 1,340 hectares of land encompassing a 555 hectare urban boundary expansion. An article in Global Airport Cities stated: ‘Land uses could include conference and convention centres, trade schools, commercial rental establishments, hotels, private health and recreational facilities, restaurants, motor vehicle service stations and other commercial uses’.
Councillors approved an OMB settlement agreement at a special meeting on 14th January 2015. The settlement prevented any kind of residential incursion in the lands designated for the Aerotropolis. After OMB granted permission for the development in 2013 a number of property owners had appealed the 555 hectare urban boundary expansion but a final agreement had been reached. Councillor Lloyd Ferguson, representing one of the wards in land allocated to the AEGD, said the agreement had involved “quite a lot of land swapping” and that not all of the details would be made public.
Development on the AEGD land was stalled for over four years. It did not commence until October 2019 when Panattoni, a major property developer, officially broke ground on a $30 million (USD22.6 million) 24,576 square meter warehouse. No tenant was lined up for the ‘speculative investment’. Panattoni intended that the warehouse would be the first phase of development, of a total of 148,644 square meters, on AEGD land.