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Airpark users protest month to month leases, potential bridge crossing

COURTENAY, B.C- All is not well at the mouth of the Courtenay River.

In roughly the middle of the river’s exit, the Courtenay Airpark has been in operation for the last 55 years, serving as a host to both private pilots, tourists flying in their own aircraft, and small aircraft companies.

The location is also used as an alternate landing spot for official aircraft, such as air ambulances.

However, the municipal administration in Courtenay could end up giving consideration to a transportation plan for the city that would seriously impact the area, with a bridge proposal possibly punching through the existing marina immediately next to the park.

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Earlier in the week, users of the facility told that they feel like their voices are not being heard by the city government. They also said they’d been told that leases for businesses at the site will be going on to a month by month basis, due to the possibility of a bridge decision.

They were not happy about the way things have been going.

Andreas Ruttkiewicz, the owner and operator of Airspeed High, an ultralight flight school based at the airpark, said he had first heard of a bridge proposal and month-to-month leases around three weeks ago.

Another owner at the site had attempted expansion, which fell through after month-to-month leases were raised by the city. Both he and fellow pilot Martin Wilson were disappointed with the possibility of the lease change, and the possibility of a bridge being considered close to the site.

“It (a bridge) wouldn’t mess with it (the airpark), it would destroy it,” said Ruttkiewicz.

“It would take out the marina for sure, and it would go right across the threshold for 1-3 (a runway approach), which would eliminate the Airpark.”

He believed that the city administration would be making the wrong decision, if the airpark was shuttered.

“If you’re a developer, that’s great, it’s valuable land,” said Ruttkiewicz.

“However, it’s the only park in the Comox Valley that generates revenue for the city. Every other park costs them money, so with that in mind, if they’re looking for a resource to sell, why don’t they sell Simms Park? It’s costing them money, it’s prime real estate, put condos there, see what the public thinks then! It probably wouldn’t go over well.”

On Tuesday evening, the Airpark Association appeared before the City of Courtenay council to tell them about the association’s opposition to a crossing at 23rd Street, along with the new month-to-month leases.

The presentation was led by Dave Mellin, who spoke on behalf of the association.

When it came to the matter of the crossing, the response from council varied.

Councillor David Frisch said it was good to hear the group speak, but indicated they could be “getting ahead of themselves” due to a bridge location not being actively considered.

Councillor Doug Hillian had a different position, saying he was surprised to hear about a bridge being proposed for 21st Street and was “absolutely opposed”. He also apologized for any “consternation” the idea had caused for Project Watershed, as well as K’ómoks First Nation (KFN).

Both KFN and Project Watershed are working towards restoration of the former Field Sawmill site, along with the City of Courtenay.

Hillian believed “mistakes were made” and stated that he didn’t believe the current council had any interest in a bridge proposal.

Mayor Larry Jangula had a different response, stating that there was no decision made yet, and 12 bridge locations had been proposed by the consultant currently working on a transportation plan for Courtenay.

According to a prepared statement the mayor read at the meeting, those locations were 3rd Street, 6th Street, 11th Street, 8th Street, 13th Street, 19th Street, 20th Street, 21st Street, and 29th Street.

Jangula said that the transportation plan would be coming to council later this year, who could then choose to accept it, or tell them to go back and change it. He also said there had been “misinformation and assumptions” spread to the public on the topic.

“Any comments by members of the public on land use decisions, particularly at the Courtenay airpark, would be speculation,” said Jangula.

“Prior to taking any steps, on any recommendations on the plan, as approved by council, considerable work would need to be done to address areas of concern and potential impacts. Of course, we would have public hearings, of course we would use the public process. It would not be something we would do in the dark.”

He indicated that the city is working towards “operational efficiencies” at the airpark, due to multiple leases at the site expiring at different times.

When Mellin pressed him on the matter, Jangula indicated there were no plans to keep leases at the site on a month to month basis, with main leases expected to be renewed from 2019 to 2024.

“Are we led to believe that the city is totally behind the Airpark staying there, extending leases on into the future?” asked Mellin, after Jangula’s statement.

“I just told you, they’re going to be extended until 2024, that’s the plan at the moment,” said Jangula.

After the exchange, Mellin said he wanted to see 25-year leases at the site. Jangula told him to consult with city staff.

“You can’t operate a business in a vacuum,” said Mellin.

“You’ve got to clear the air here.”

“We all hear you,” said Jangula.

“And we all agree.”

Courtenay Airpark Association (CAA) President Morris Perrey, reached after the presentation, said what he heard was a “complete reversal” from what he had been told by Courtenay CAO David Allen. He was happier after the presentation, but still not pleased with the five-year lease option raised by Jangula.

“I would like to have at least 25 years, or 50,” said Perrey.

He was still worried about the city using a bridge as a “smokescreen”, in order to get control of the airpark, and put it on a short term lease.

After the council meeting was concluded, Jangula said that staff had approached council about the leases at the airpark, with the aim of getting every lease at the site lined up.

“Somehow, the message got out that everybody was on a month to month, and the whole thing could be in turmoil,” said Jangula.

“It’s most unfortunate.”

He guaranteed that month to month leases would not be happening at the airpark.

“That is not the case at all,” said Jangula.

As for the question of a 25-year lease for airpark users, the mayor believed that was an “interesting discussion”.

“Quite frankly, I think the most responsible thing to do at this time is wait until there is a new council, because we’re going quite a ways into the future, and have that new council deal with it,” said Jangula.

“It seems a little premature for us, and we have no intentions of doing anything at the moment. It’s just routine, to do the five years.”

As for the possibility of the city approving a river crossing that would impact the river estuary or the airpark, Jangula said it would be “very controversial, and very difficult”, and didn’t believe a crossing at 6th Street or 11th Street would help mitigate traffic flow.

Long-term, he wanted to see a ring road around Courtenay.

“You get off the connector, you could take Marsden Road to Plateau Road, hook up to Vanier Road, hook up to Lerwick and Veterans,” said Jangula.

“Eventually, if we put a road through, down towards the estuary somewhere in that vicinity, and hooked it up to a crossing somewhere in that vicinity, the crossing may be 17th or it may be south of 17th, but my suggestion is that anything closer into town defeats the entire purpose of moving traffic.”

The transportation master plan has not been approved by city council.

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