Federal government changes course, backs airport on Polo Park development plan

By | May 28, 2020

A letter from Transport Canada to the City of Winnipeg may set back a residential development plan for the Polo Park area by months or even years and is a major victory for the Winnipeg Airports Authority.

It could potentially scuttle the development entirely. 

Late Thursday, the city’s legal department sent city councillors a memo from Transport Canada confirming the Winnipeg Airports Authority “is fully authorized by Transport Canada to speak to local issues affecting the airport.”

The letter appears to contradict a statement from Transport Canada it provided to CBC News earlier this month saying the authority “cannot speak on the government of Canada’s behalf.” 

The WAA has opposed a proposed change to what is known as the Airport Vicinity Protection Area Secondary Plan — a planning framework that restricts development around the airport in order to limit residential noise complaints.

Cadillac Fairview and Shindico Reality Inc. have proposed to build residential units around the Polo Park mall — a plan worth potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in construction and economic activity.

The WAA has objected to the development, believing it could threaten its 24-7 takeoff and landing status because of the noise complaints.

With mere hours before city council was set to vote on changing the zoning to allow the development, the city’s legal department received the communication from Transport Canada.

“Under the ground lease, Transport Canada has delegated to WAA the authority and responsibility to file an objection to a proposed change to the AVPA and to make representations before the provincial municipal board to voice its concern regarding the proposed land use plan and the potential impact on airport operations,” wrote Sheri Currie, Transport Canada’s regional director general.

The city’s legal department has advised councillors the letter from the federal government “constitutes a valid objection” from the WAA and recommends city council hold the matter over indefinitely and allow it to be heard by the provincial municipal board.

Winnipeg Airports Authority says development could impair its 24-7 takeoff and landing status. (CBC)

The late intervention by the federal government has exasperated the developers, who believed a majority of councillors were prepared to approve the zoning changes and allow the project.

“We believe that the city heard the evidence presented by Cadillac Fairview and by the airport, weighed those arguments, and the airport lost on the merits … we are also disappointed the federal government has flip-flopped and decided retroactively to say the WAA is in effect the voice of the federal government. We continue to believe that is fundamentally wrong,” wrote Shindico general counsel Justin Zaranowski.

CBC News had canvassed most of the councillors earlier this month and it appeared there were enough votes to change the zoning and allow the project to start.

Moving the plan to the municipal board could take more than a year.

The WAA had promised to do a noise study as early as 2016 but it was never completed. Economic Development Winnipeg made a similar promise to councillors in late 2019, but it has not materialized either.

A spokesperson for the WAA says “a proper planning process ensures Winnipeg can avoid the friction caused by incompatible residential development and airport operations seen in other cities across Canada and around the world,” and promised to work with all levels of government and stakeholders.

“Since 1997, WAA has been a partner to the city and province on land-use decisions that impact the airport and we want to continue a positive relationship,” wrote WAA vice-president Tyler MacAfee.

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