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Reconsidering the Airport Expansion Growth District (AEGD)

As climatic chaos spreads across the globe we need to re-examine both the threat it poses to Hamiltonians and the ways in which it is being made worse by once accepted development activity. Hundreds of acres of farmland, wetlands, woodlots and other natural features are threatened by the city’s Airport Employment Growth District (AEGD). This was Hamilton’s last big urban boundary expansion finalized in 2015. When it was first proposed over 20 years ago it was envisioned as a high tech centre, but today low-wage warehouses are the main expected employment in the AEGD. That’s what we’ve seen already with the Amazon warehouse complex on Upper James, and the AIMCo proposal for five warehouses that would destroy the Garner Road Marsh. Other similar proposals have are now being made in other parts of the AEGD.

The AEGD was designed when climate change and loss of biodiversity were not considered important, and when farms and other lands not built on were assumed to just be waiting for their “highest and best use” through future development. Indeed the original name of the AEGD was the Aerotropolis – a grand scheme to put Hamilton’s long struggling airport at the centre of its future economy. City officials wanted the AEGD to be much larger and there are still plans for substantial expansion. But more recently is has been admitted that Hamilton has an excess of such “employment” land that won’t even be used by 2051.

The AEGD is also part of the old thinking that cities should subsidize development in multiple ways. These include expanding the urban area; designating vast areas of farmland for “growth”; building roads, pipes and other public infrastructure to attract developers; cutting development fees so the costs of growth are shifted onto existing residents; pre-zoning the lands to undercut any public opposition; and “eliminating red tape” and “streamlining” planning processes.

This minimizes or ignores the existing role of these lands in providing local food, flood prevention, homes for wildlife and respite from the alienation of urban living. Of course there are nice words in AEGD planning documents about protecting such features, but these don’t align with the real intentions. Indeed, the actual size of the AEGD can’t be found in city documents or the Ontario Municipal Board decision that approved it. We know only that it consists of 555 “net” hectares of developable land. That doesn’t include any streams, wetlands or forested areas that are expected to be undevelopable and therefore are not even counted.

It also excludes the new roads and public infrastructure required to facilitate development. Those were expected to cost half a billion dollars in 2010. That number is far higher and growing rapidly. For example, a trunk sewer forecast to cost $44 million a decade ago has now been tendered at $114 million. That was the lowest of two bids received by the city. The other bid was over $245 million. Development fees can only be collected if actual development takes place. The full amount doesn’t cover the actual costs to the city, and council has discounted the fees by nearly 50 percent. And that’s before any special deals such as were provided to the Amazon “fulfillment centre”.

Last year Hamiltonians overwhelmingly and successfully opposed the urbanization of more farmland, but that decision doesn’t apply to the AEGD. However, it does make clear that the public understands that loss of foodlands and natural features are no longer acceptable. Council got that message on the boundary expansion question; it needs to recognize the same message applies to the AEGD. The climate and biodiversity crises, heat emergencies and flooding require a reversal of the destruction of foodlands, wetlands, forests and other natural features.