Aerotropolis OMB hearing will determine shape of city

The Ontario Municipal Board is considering how the city's Aerotropolis or Airport Employment Growth District (AEGD) plan might proceed.

At stake are 720 hectares of agricultural lands, $350 million in infrastructure investment and shape of the city

A view of the land at and around Hamilton airport. (Mark Chambers/CBC News)

The future shape of Hamilton will be determined in the next three weeks as the Ontario Municipal Board considers how and if the city's Aerotropolis or Airport Employment Growth District (AEGD) plan will proceed.

Up for consideration in the hearing are more than 720 hectares of agricultural land in and around the Hamilton airport that would be turned into an industrial park, and $350 million in infrastructure investment.

Not to mention the shape of the city itself. If approved, the plan will redraw the city's boundaries, making it the single largest urban boundary expansion in the history of Hamilton.

City says plan is sound

The city of Hamilton's AEGD or Aerotropolis plan is sound, the result of years of planning, research and public engagement, argued Nancy Smith, lawyer for the City of Hamilton, on Monday during her opening statement before for the Ontario Municipal Board.

Aerotropolis proposal

The AEGD proposal would see more than 720 hectares of agricultural lands around John C Munro International Airport developed into an industrial park. The proposal, which would reportedly cost $350 million, would represent the single largest urban boundary expansion in the history of Hamilton.

Opponents of the plan such as Environment Hamilton say it will rob the city of valuable farmlands. Moreover, they argue that the plan represents a step backward for the city's vision to discourage urban sprawl.

Proponents argue that the plan will bring much needed jobs to the city and in terms of economic development potentially contribute $70 million in revenue by 2031.

Additionally, the use of the land falls in line with the city's need to meet 2031 employment forecasts, she said.

Proponents of the development plan say it will bring much needed jobs to the city and, in terms of economic development, potentially contribute $70 million in tax revenue by 2031.

Smith is representing the city in the three-week hearing, which is being held at the Hamilton Convention Centre. According to Smith, the hearing should have a very specific focus.

"The board is to decide if intervention in the city of Hamilton's Growth Strategy for Employment Lands is warranted or justified," she said.

After the presentation of her evidence, Smith told the Chair of the OMB that there's no case for altering the existing plans.

In her opening statement Smith laid out the city's contention that discussions about the location of the development — in particular its relationship to the airport — aren't relevant to the hearing at this phase. 

"This is not about the airport," she said.

Lawyers for Tradeport Industrial Group, the company that operates the Hamilton Airport, echoed her concern.

"This hearing isn't about the airport. The question isn't where the land is being developed, but how much land is needed to meet the development targets," argued a lawyer for Tradeport.

Opposition says plan is not a given

But opponents of the plan argued that the conversation about the proposal should be more wide-ranging during the hearing.

"The purpose of the hearing is to consider these lands for an urban designation, and within that consideration are a number of different facets," argued Eric Gillespie, a lawyer representing Environment Hamilton and Hamiltonians for Progressive Development, the appellants in the hearing.

"It is by no means a given that this area should be used as it has been designated," said Gillespie.

For Gillespie, some of the facets of the hearing should include a discussion about the airport and the proposed location of the development, as well as the use of the land. 

Gillespie also took issue with the assertation that the Aerotropolis proposal for the land was adequately meeting employment forecasts.

"The province mandates 50 jobs per hectare," said Gillespie, "[but] the proposal will results in 37 jobs per hectare.

"That raises real concern," he said. "Why would land that can't support the density the province mandates be selected?"

At stake: should Hamilton expand?

The hearing will answer the "fundamental question" of whether the city should expand or work within its urban boundaries, said Gillespie.

"What's at stake right now is the very fundamental question whether the city of Hamilton's boundaries should expand into what is largely prime agricultural land," he said when the hearing broke for lunch.

"And if there is a real need for that and a real demand, and there is nowhere else to put it, maybe it should be considered. But at this point that doesn't appear to have been demonstrated in the minds of many of the people who are participating in this hearing."

According to Gillespie, the city has viable alternatives that already exist within its boundaries.

"The city of Hamilton has large amounts of industrial land — some of which is still being utilized but some of it not. That land appears to be available for employment uses. As well, there are already business parks that have been set up and approved that aren't full. Those are the types of lands that our clients believe are more suitable than taking prime agricultural land out of production for employment uses."

Ultimately Gillespie hopes that the outcome of the hearing will favour the status quo.

"If the evidence that the board will hear from the appellants is accepted, it will likely demonstrate that very little if any additional land needs to be put into employment uses outside of what the city already has in its urban boundary. The ultimate outcome our clients would like to see is that the urban boundary not be expanded and that the existing structure of the city remain the same." 

Nancy Smith, lawyer for the city of Hamilton, declined to comment.