District council may be counting on its lucky stars if it is hoping aviation authorities will provide an exemption for nonconformance to standards in order to reopen its grass runway this summer.
Following complaints about the state of the runway and a decrease in revenue due to COVID-19, the runway, referred to as 09-27 in all staff reports, was temporarily closed last June. The board of the airport had agreed to hire a firm to conduct an evaluation of the runway, and the firm concluded that the runway was not in compliance with federal aviation and safety standards.
Airport CAO Len O’Connor told District council at its April meeting that the runway had not been maintained and while there were corrective action plans in place, they had not been carried out.
At that meeting, the board of directors for the airport brought forward a recommendation asking council to approve the reopening of the runway this season, provided an exemption is granted by aviation authorities. Council also heard that the board had already instructed staff to apply for the exemption.
“This would allow the use of 09-27, in its current condition, to be used for the summer of 2021 until the opening of the new grass strip,” noted O’Connor.
A key addition to the Muskoka Airport Master Plan, which was approved by the committee of the whole on January 29, 2021, was direction to accelerate construction of a new crosswind runway to replace exiting runway 09-27. Subsequently, staff recommended, with the help of an engineering firm, that approximately $600,000, plus about $63,000 for the design, location, and administration, be set aside for the construction of another runway. They noted the new runway, which is already underway, would not be ready until the spring of 2022.
Council also heard that three other options had been considered by the board of the airport for runway 09-27, including its continued closure, but “there was a desire to consider the impact to the recreational pilots that have delegated to District Council to have access to a grass runway in 2021,” noted O’Connor in his report.
Another option involved the full rehabilitation of the runway which could cost anywhere from $200,000 to $300,000 and would make the runway unavailable for a year. “Since this is the costliest option and does not allow for the use of the runway during 2021, this option was not recommended by the Board,” added O’Connor.
The third option involved assessing the minimal repairs required in order to open the runway for the 2021 season. “The estimated cost of making runway 09-27 adequate for short-term limited use until a new alternate runway is constructed in 2021 is projected to cost up to $70,000. It should be highlighted, that this work does not bring the runway into compliance with Transport Canada regulation, but may allow for the exemption to be granted,” stated O’Connor. “The Board has not recommended this option as the additional cost of $70,000 to remediate the runway for use for 2 months does not represent an effective use of District funds.”
Bracebridge District Councillor Don Smith tried to have the motion to seek an exemption from aviation authorities amended. He suggested that council instead undertake the full rehabilitation of the existing grass runway.
Smith argued that by fixing the runway at what could be substantially less than $300,000, it would save a significant amount of money to the Muskoka taxpayer, instead of moving and recreating the grass strip elsewhere on the airport grounds at an estimated cost in excess of $600,000. “So, I would like to suggest that there is this opportunity to revisit our decision… we have an opportunity to move forward in a positive way and there are a number of opportunities that are still provided for development on the east side of the airport property, should we decide to go with this amendment.”
District clerk Amy Back reminded council that the Master Plan for the sirport which included the closure, or relocation, of the grass runway 09-27 had already been previously approved by council.
“Maybe we should put it on hold for six months and revisit the whole thing,” said District and Muskoka Lakes Councillor Allen Edwards who seconded the motion. “That runway has been in use since the war and there’d never be any problems had it been actually maintained.”
Muskoka Lakes Mayor and District Councillor Phil Harding and Gravenhurst Deputy Mayor and District Councillor Heidi Lorenz said discussions had already taken place and a decision made, based on expert advice.
“The only thing that seems to remain consistent is the opposition, theoretically. I am one hundred per cent in agreement that we need a safe airport, but I’m also going to look to the experts as this goes forward,” added Harding.
The proposed amendment to the original motion was defeated by a majority of council as they turned back to the motion at hand involving the reopening of the airport if an exemption to standards is granted.
“I just want to clarify. I may be totally missing something but the resolution as it stands says that we have an unsafe runway that we closed and if Transport Canada or whatever, whoever we’ve applied to for an exemption, says we can have the exemption and the runway is still unsafe, we aren’t going to do any work on it? We’re just going to open the unsafe runway? Am I reading that correctly?” questioned Huntsville Mayor and District Councillor Karin Terziano.
“Yes, that’s correct. That’s the right understanding of this. You’re correct. So we’re asking Transport Canada to provide an exemption on the runway as-is,” replied O’Connor while Terziano shook her head.
Others, like Harding, had a different assessment of the situation. “I guess I’m very much in support of this resolution if Transport Canada and the powers that be will relax their rules a little bit, I think we add another option for those pilots that are in the air,” he said. “What I’ve heard consistently is emergency landings, strong winds east-west is the prevailing [condition]and that airplanes sometimes need to land. I would far rather see them land on a less-than-perfect grass runway than having to move a little bit north and use Hwy 118, if you will, to land that airplane…”
In the end, the motion was approved by a majority of council.
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