Friday, July 27, 2012

Waterville Municipal Airport, Nova Scotia: Study worries aviators

Aircraft located at Waterville Municipal Airport. Pilots are worried for the airport's future. (GORDON DELANEY / Valley Bureau) 

CAMBRIDGE — Aviators who fly out of Waterville Municipal Airport are concerned about its future in light of a study underway to determine if it can be moved to another location to make way for possible expansion of the Michelin tire plant here. 

 “As aviators, the concern is that the airport will close and there’s nowhere to go,” Walter Isenor, chairman of the Waterville Airport Co-operative Ltd., said in an interview Friday.

The biggest concern in moving the airport will be the cost and who will pick up the tab, said Isenor, who has flown out of Waterville for more than 30 years.

The airport, believed to be the busiest in the province next to Stanfield International in Halifax, has a 1,066-by-23 metre paved runway and a 30,000-square-foot asphalt taxi way. It serves mostly small aircraft, including helicopters and fixed-wing planes.

Apart from private users and business people, it’s used by emergency aircraft, Department of Natural Resources and the RCMP. Air cadets also train there in the summer months.

The airport has 11 hangars and houses three businesses, including a flight training school, aircraft maintenance centre and a skydiving school.

It has almost 10,000 landings and takeoffs per year, and houses 32 full-time aircraft operated by about 50 aviators.

“It’s a busy little airport,” said Isenor.

“We need quite a big piece of level land, and most of that land in the Valley is agricultural. It would be highly unlikely that we would be able to get agricultural land,” said Isenor. Farmland in Kings County is protected under municipal zoning bylaws.

The terms of reference for the study say that any possible site cannot result in loss of agricultural land, must not impact municipal drinking water supplies and has to adhere to municipal zoning bylaws. It must also maintain flight path agreements with 14 Wing Greenwood and consider safety and environmental impacts.

“And if we did find the land, I don’t think it’s automatic that we would be moving to it, because there is the question of dollars. Who’s paying for all this? Isenor asked.

He said it would cost $1 million just to build a comparable asphalt runway. Rebuilding the entire facility in another location would cost in the millions of dollars.

The last economic impact study, done a decade ago, showed the airport injects about $1 million into the local economy every year.

The province is funding a study on the relocation of the airport to make way for a possible large expansion at the nearby Michelin Tire plant.

The $100,000 provincial study is being done in co-operation with Michelin, the airport co-op and the Municipality of the County of Kings, which owns it. It’s expected to be completed by this fall before municipal elections on Oct. 20.

“The Waterville airport, as we know it, is leaving,” said Isenor. “It seems to me that Michelin will be getting the property at some time. <ellipsis> But we have no idea where it’s going.”

He said the best-case scenario would be building a new, larger airport with a 1,525-metre runway to serve the area and allow for growth. “If we’re moving, this is the only chance we have to build a new airport. It would be good if we could combine it with other things, like a business park.”

In the meantime, the talk about moving it is putting a halt to any development here, said airport manager Art Patton. A couple of business people have since cancelled their plans to build new hangars at the site.

“You can’t really invest a whole lot of money here right now,” Patton said in an earlier interview. He added that the airport is operating as usual, but that all major maintenance and financing plans are on hold until the study is complete.

Isenor said the co-operative has had one meeting with the consultants to date and is supplying information to them.

“We don’t know a heck of a lot at this point,” he said. “We’re feeding information to them as much as we can. The consultant’s are working feverishly right now.”

But he added that closing the airport would be a major loss to the area.

Kings County Warden Diana Brothers said Friday that the consultant’s report will answer many questions people have.

“The municipality has always been very supportive of the airport and recognizes the economic benefit,” she said. She added the study is expected to recommend three possible locations.

“It would be nice to keep our municipal airport and also have the benefits of a Michelin Tire expansion,” she added.

Dana LeBlanc, president of Michelin North America Canada Inc., said in a recent interview that the company asked if the Waterville airport can be moved for potential expansion and how much it would cost.

“It’s really just that at this point,” LeBlanc said in an interview in the council chambers. “We always look for opportunities, and we want to be able to prepare the Waterville site for any potential opportunities that could come in the future.”

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