Cortes Airstrip: the protest and Monday’s town hall meeting

Around 30 people held an impromptu protest in front of the Cortes Airstrip on Wednesday. They received word that a paving crew was coming over on the ferry, to pave the runway. This turned out to be premature, but there will be a town hall meeting at Mansons Hall, from 7 to 9 PM Monday, to discuss the situation. 

“Many people across the island are concerned about the implications of these upgrades, not because one person will be using it for landing their helicopter, but because the upgrades will make it much easier for private aircraft to land here. The landowner as well as the individual who contracted these changes do not live here, or appear to have our communities’ best interests in mind,” explained Sadhu Johnston, one of the protesters spokespersons. 

He acknowledged that Michael Ching and Martine Rothblatt, the landowner and person allegedly behind the renovations, both own property on Cortes.

Johnston: “A newly paved runway allows for irreversible, ongoing access, and could facilitate many more people using Cortes as a periodic vacation spot rather than investing time and energy to make this community a diverse and healthy place.” 

“I would appreciate it if the two property owners involved in this would share their plans with the community, and listen to the community’s concerns. There’s just a lack of engagement and communication. With the lack of information, people assume the worst. For the many people that live here and love this community, the idea that something could be done that would jeopardize the community, its diversity of the community and the affordability housing in the community is very frustrating.”

About 9:50 AM on Wednesday, the first of the paving trucks, associated trades and trailers drove off the ferry at the Whaletown terminal. There was a line-up of construction vehicles that most likely filled most of the next two sailings, waiting in Heriot Bay.  

Ten minutes later the protesters assembled in front of the airstrip’s driveway.  Johnston said they had been warned an hour before, which suggests someone on the Quadra Island side of the ferry alerted them.

Johnston: “We were at the airstrip for about an hour and learned that the equipment is first going to be used to fix some patches on Cortes Island roads. It won’t be heading to the runway for a few weeks, but this was a good chance to be there and  see who else is interested and concerned about the issue.”

Three months ago, the airstrip owner’s representative wrote in the Tideline, “Our scope of work includes increasing the safety of the runway by grading the existing gravel surface and chipsealing the airstrip. This runway is currently used by smaller aircraft only, as it is not long enough to accommodate jets or larger planes and there are no plans to lengthen or widen this surface so it will continue to only accommodate those types of aircraft that have landed here before.”

However a great many trucks have been seen driving to and from the airstrip since then. Regional Director Mark Vonesch recently told the SRD Board there were rumoured to have been a thousand trips; Johnston gave a more conservative estimate of ‘hundreds.’ 

Johnston: “A lot of people are commenting on how bad the roads are right now and those trucks may be a contributing factor. We’ve all noticed how jammed up the ferries have been this winter and in the spring. They normally aren’t (until the tourist season).”

“I think the implications of this work are broader than the long term impact of having a paved runway.”

“The challenges for our roads and our ferries have been an issue.”

“Normally that kind of equipment would use barges and come in via the log dump, which would reduce the inconvenience for Cortes residents. I’m not sure why that didn’t occur in this case, that that certainly would have helped. That’s the kind of thing that would be nice. If the people that are doing that extensive of construction could kind of think about the convenience or inconveniences for the community and use that other mode.”   

“I am the Executive Director of the Cortes Housing Society and I’m really concerned about the longer term impact of having a paved airstrip. This might make Cortes more accessible to people flying in on private airplanes to have a weekend, or a week. or two weeks a year here. I’m very worried about what that might mean for long term housing affordability if more people  can buy properties here and convert them to homes that they use for a couple of weeks a year.”

Cortes Currents: Do you see a role for an airstrip on Cortes?   

Johnston: “I’m the chair of the board of the fire department, and having a place to land helicopters, larger helicopters in particular, during  storm events and whatnot is helpful.  There was a big helicopter that needed to land on the island just last week for a medical evacuation. They requested to use the helipad at the airstrip  and were turned down.”

In January, the airstrip’s representative wrote, “A small wooden 56′ x 64′ storage hangar at the north end of the runway, which will be used to house a small plane or helicopter if desired.”

There were men working there when the protest occurred.  

Johnston: “Some of the workers on the hanger came out, on behalf of Martine, to speak with our group. We were able to learn a little bit more about what’s happening on the site and had a very nice conversation with the folks doing the work. We were also able to open a line of communication with Martine and her team, to express our concerns about what’s being undertaken at the airstrip, and the implications that it has for our community.”

Cortes Currents attempted to contact the airstrip owner’s representative in January, but she did not return my phone calls. I emailed her after learning of the protest Wednesday, but have not yet received a reply. 

The opposition to the renovations at the airstrip is not over. 

Johnston: “We’re planning a town hall meeting at Mansons Hall on Monday, June 3, from 7 to 9 PM. People can find out what’s going on and share their  thoughts about what can be done about it.”

Links of Interest

Top image credit: Some of the protesters speaking with two workers at the Airstrip – submitted photo

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