Town Hall Meeting: The Cortes Airstrip

About 125 people turned up for the town hall meeting in Mansons Hall, on Monday June 3, 2024. Noticeably absent were the air strip’s owner, Michael Ching, his manager,  Judy Kemchand, or Martene Rothblatt, who is financing the air strip’s renovations. 

This did not come as a surprise.

Advertisement for Cortes Island Hanger ‘from scratch to finish in 6 months and its all made of wood.’ it was designed for a Pilatus PC 12 aircraft (like that seen at the top of the page)

One of the three speakers at the meeting read out an email he sent Rothblatt in February: 

“I am writing to see if there is a chance I (we) can persuade you from paving the airstrip.”

“If left as a gravelled surface we have a better chance of preserving our wonderful island and community. As they say, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”

“Change is inevitable, a fact you are familiar with being a pioneer in so many fields. But I will guess it is this very change that has drawn you to Cortes, a safe sleepy little island, away from the busy mad world, and its constant change.”

“A paved runway will bring even more people to Cortes, and with that, comes more change. The biggest threat from this change is the slow but steady replacement of our local population. It is the locals that have created the sanctuary you seek, the community created though countless volunteer hours and persevering through the long winters and isolation.”

“I know that work is underway, so improve the runway, just don’t pave it. Let’s not make it any easier for change to advance here.”

“My name is Mike Manson. We live about 2kms from your place and are on the beach down from Hollyhock. I am the grandson of pioneer John Manson ( Mansons Landing). My family has been farming this same piece of land since 1888, now in our 136th year. We have seen change.”

Rothblatt did not reply.

One of the speakers, Sadhu Johnston, mentioned numerous attempts to communicate with the air strip or Rothblatt – all of which were met by silence. 

Half way through the meeting, the assembly broke into small groups for further discussion. 

After listening to reports from the small groups, Johnston pointed out, “The primary and first concern was (Ching’s and Rothblatt’s) lack of community mindedness to show up here, to a community meeting, and (at the same time) be making changes that could be really significant for the island.”

Judyth Weaver added, “A lot of this started because of non-communication, and it’s gotten much bigger because of non-communication. This meeting was about communication, and I am so relieved.  The difference is quite stark to me.”

There is a rumour that Rothblatt purchased part ownership in the airstrip. 

Someone in one of the small groups did the title search which showed Ching still owned the airstrip as of Thursday, May 30, 2024.   

Johnston read a list of verified facts out to the assembly:

  • The land is owned by Michael Ching and upgrades are being paid for by Martine Rothblatt 
  • What they are doing is legal
  • This is a private runway- they don’t need approvals to make these upgrades, which includes a new hangar and paved runway
  • The runway owner can charge fees for landings 
  • The airstrip has not been lengthened.  
  • A representative directly communicated that they plan to pave in July
  • Transport Canada responds to complaints about airstrips related to noise & safety (flying low) & agricultural impact (effect on livestock, etc)
  • (The airstrip is part of a strata but ) the strata has no jurisdiction to prevent the airstrip
  • Lack of information and communication of plans & intentions is causing significant concerns within the community and leading to gossip and rumours 
  • Paving the airstrip makes it easier for people to use it
  • The airstrip is in agricultural land reserve- once it’s paved it’s not likely going back to agricultural land

One of the small groups was concerned about fire hazards. There will be fuel stored at the airstrip, and it obviously has to be transported to Cortes Island. If there is a fire, the Cortes Island Fire Department will have to extinguish it and at this point Rothblatt and Ching are not communicating with the community. 

A couple of small groups reported concerns about the airstrip’s impact on the island’s wolf pack, deer and bird populations.   

Joel Solomon said, “I’m concerned about paving of the airstrip and what that will mean; about the kind of aircraft –  what can happen there? I don’t know the rules and the regulations. I don’t even know what agencies sign off on those things and give the permits, but  I tend to have community interests in general, wherever I am.” 

He also introduced a moment of hilarity into the meeting. In the old days there had been more impromptu ‘airstrips’ and one of them ceased to be operational after a neighbour erected a tower in its flight path.  

Chris Dragseth observed, “The community seems to be on a very similar page. There’s concerns about this project in itself, but this project is also  representing a bigger issue for Cortes in the context of ‘how do we manage  change over the longer term?’ A participant in our focus group added, ‘Cortes is a place that they always felt safe growing up in because it was two ferry rides away from Vancouver Island. We don’t want to lose that sense of security.”

Max Thaysen brought the subject into a more global perspective, “a major focus of mine to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in time to keep us all safe and healthy and prevent worse case scenarios. We’re not doing a good job on that trajectory. One of my favourite climate scientists estimates that about a third of the problem is superfluous, unnecessary, egregious, and extremely immoral emissions, which are the ones that you don’t need to live a good life. We can end those tomorrow and actuallt, we really have to Private planes are not an appropriate mode of transportation on a finite planet. With 8 billion people and a carbon budget that has been exhausted already by the world’s wealthy, there’s billions of people who would like to use some of that space in the carbon budget to lift themselves out of abject poverty. We just can’t afford private planes. 

Cortes Currents: Would you eliminate all air flights?  

Max Thaysen: “I don’t know if I would go quite as far as to say ‘all,’ but certainly if you’ve already had a few flights in your lifetime, that’s as much as we can afford you having. If you’ve had a few already this year, then you’re definitely done for the rest of your life.”

“That’s not my personal preference, that’s how the math works on climate change. It’s basically a scientifically determined fact that we can’t afford as much flying as we’re doing. If you’ve already had your share, then your share is used up.” 

Sadhu Johnston: “There was a lot of conversation about community values. If people are going to be moving here, how do we ensure that they understand they’re moving into a delicate community, and a diverse community, a community where people contribute and participate. This isn’t just a place to come for a few weekends a year, or even a few weeks a year, but that it’s a place to come and settle in and be a part of the community. We don’t want all of the real estate being bought up for people to only use for a few weeks a year. It’s about people being invested in this community.” 

Johnston is the Executive Director of the Cortes Community Housing Society, “Wearing my Cortes Housing Society hat really makes me think about how we  work with realtors and folks that are thinking about buying, to help them understand what the expectations are for community engagement.”

 “Coming out of tonight’s meeting, we know that with two days’ notice 125 people showed up (out of a total population of 1055) and most of them expressed concerns. Moving forward, knowing that the community is behind us in the way that we are going to try to communicate with the two property owners that are most involved. We’ve prepared a petition which has been signed here tonight and  a list of concerns and a list of questions. We’ll put all those together, and ask them to engage with us and answer our questions.”

“It may be that all their answers will really assuage many of our concerns and  it may be that some of the questions we’re raising haven’t been thought of.”

Cortes Currents: What could happen if the people behind the upgrades to the Cortes Island airstrip continue to ignore the surrounding community? 

Some of the cherished moments of Cortes Island’s heritage are the logging blockades that prevented MacMillan Bloedel from harvesting its lands in 1990 and Island Timberlands from logging in 2012.  A number of Cortes residents participated in the resistance at Fairy Creek in 2023. With only an hour’s notice of the paving crew coming, last week 30 people turned out to ‘defend’ their community.

Johnston confirmed, “There are people here who have indicated they’re prepared to try to stop the paving from happening with direct action.”

Links of Interest

Image at top of page: A Pilatus PC 12 aircraft like this could easily fly from Chicago and land on the Cortes Airstrip – Photo by Robbie Klinkenberg (Own work) via Wikimedia (CC BY 4.0 International)

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