For many in Toronto’s queer community, Hanlan’s Point Beach on Centre Island is sacred ground. It was the site of a historic gay picnic – considered by many to be the first Pride gathering – and it’s also home to one of the country’s only nude beaches.
But a recent Porter Airlines request to extend its runway to accommodate jets and increased airline traffic has some waterfront residents and community activists worried that Hanlan’s Point is at risk if the extension gets a green light.
Nick MulÃ©, chair of Queer Ontario, is very concerned. His group holds an annual summer picnic in the park in the tradition of Toronto’s first Gay Day Picnic, which was held at Hanlan’s Point on Aug 1, 1971. He says Toronto’s TNTmen pushed the city to carve out a nude beach at Hanlan’s Point in 2002. “Historically, that place is very important to our community,” MulÃ© says.
Councillor Pam McConnell, whose ward includes the Toronto Islands, says the extensions proposed for each side of the east-west runway are equal in size to two football fields. Going through with the project would mean losing large portions of the lake. She also worries that Transport Canada may decide to extend the airport’s north-south runway.
“When you think of it that way, the only place that the extension could go is directly across Hanlan’s . . . Environmentally, this is a disaster. Picture yourself bathing with suits on or off, and every five minutes there’s a jet going over your head.”
Toronto city council voted 29 to 15 on May 7 to authorize a staff study of issues related to Porter’s request. The first part of the study is expected to be reported at the July 3 executive committee and will return to full council in November. The estimated expense of the initial studies is $275,000, with follow-up work expected to cost between $800,000 and $1 million. The city wants to absorb these costs.
After the May 7 meeting, Porter CEO Robert Deluce told media he is “gratified” by the support he heard from councillors and hopes for a speedy approval once the reports are released.
But McConnell says “it’s shocking” that Porter has asked councillors to act urgently because new jet planes have already been purchased. “Imagine the arrogance of a corporation that announces their plans on Wall Street, which are illegal, and buys the equipment to do it, then afterward asks for permission,” she says. “This is not a good corporate partner.”
Deluce calls the new planes “whisper jets,” saying they are quiet compared to the Bombardier Q400 turboprops that Porter now flies.
“Complete bullshit,” says Councillor Adam Vaughan, noting that there’s no guarantee other companies using the airport will purchase “whisper jets.”
“The Port Authority does not care [about protecting the area]. They have a business; we just have a city,” he says.
He says Hanlan’s sunbathers should get used to the smell of jet fuel mixed with coconut oil because they may end up being surrounded by two runways. “To operate an airport properly you need two runways, both an east-west and a north-south. So if you take that south runway another 400 yards you cut off Hanlan’s Point. You just lost that beach. And the trees in the park would all need to be cut down.”
On May 7 Vaughan moved a motion to ensure the north-south runway can’t extend “one inch,” thus protecting the nude beach, the bird sanctuary, the parks and public access to Hanlan’s Point and its swimming beach.
“If that motion sticks, then we’re in good shape,” says Brian Iler, chair for CommunityAIR, a resident group seeking to have the Toronto Island Airport shut down and its lands converted to parkland. “But there’s no guarantees. We still have huge reason to be concerned.”
Waterfront resident Barry Lipton, an activist with the No Jets TO coalition, says Transport Canada could demand a longer runway, despite Vaughan’s motion. He says there are ways for Porter to get around the restrictions. “If Transport Canada demands a north-south runway, which it could, then that beach will only be accessible by coming around the other side by Centre Island,” he says. “Hanlan’s dock would be literally blocked off by a north-south runway.”
Transport Canada, Porter and the Port Authority did not respond to Xtra‘s request for comment.
On May 8, an Xtra reporter met with island resident Baye Hunter to see just how close the extensions will be to Hanlan’s Point Beach.
“It’s incredibly close,” she says, pointing to buoys in the water where the expansion will extend into the lake.
(This story has been amended from an earlier version)