Winnipeg noise study could have far-reaching implications

Winnipeg noise study
The airfield of Winnipeg International Airport at night (Facebook/Winnipeg International Airport).

A new noise study in Winnipeg could have far-reaching implications for airports across the country. The province of Manitoba released a Noise Exposure Forecast for the airport, which recommends opening as much as 4,000 acres of currently protected land to residential development.

It is the most up-to-date Noise Exposure Forecast in Canada, a tool governments use to regulate development around airports. While it applies specifically to Winnipeg, the trends on which the forecast is based could have implications across the country.

The issue is noise. It is the biggest environmental issue airports face and can, in the worst cases, lead to widespread protests and legal action. In various parts of the world, noise forces airports to change aircraft routings and procedures or impose curfews.

In Winnipeg, the issue came to a head in 2019 when a developer proposed repurposing a mall for residential towers. The airport objected, saying the development threatened its 24/7 operation. The last thing airport managers need is residents complaining about loud planes overhead. The city sided with the airport.

Do you hear the problem?

But the story doesn’t end there. The airport itself opened the door to more residential development, telling a city committee the problem isn’t development, it’s piecemeal approval of individual projects. Airport executives agreed a new NEF was needed to update the last one from 1995. It would be used to decide future land use policies for entire areas around the airport.

So the province jumped in, hiring aviation consultant HM Aero and Landmark to complete the revised NEF.

“Up-to-date scientific data on noise in the vicinity of the airport is crucial to help guide decisions on the type and scale of development that can occur safely, while fostering the airport’s continued growth and ensuring the city develops in an orderly and efficient manner,” said Manitoba’s Municipal Relations Minister Derek Johnson.

The consultants found that quieter aircraft engines are contributing to a quieter environment. At the same time, they say the long-term trend points to fewer aircraft movements.

Even before COVID, the consultants say the number of movements fell an average 1.2% per year between 1997 and 2019. That happened as airlines shifted to larger types to handle surging passenger loads. At the same time, the airlines got a lot better at filling their airplanes close to capacity. Fewer flights and quieter planes mean fewer disruptions for residents under flight paths.

Open to development

A comparison of NEFs. The black dotted lines represent noise forecasts in 1995. The solid lines show the revised NEFs for the airport’s ultimate build-out at some date in the future (HM Aero/Landmark).

The consultants expect the slide to reverse itself after the pandemic ends. But even still, the combined effect is enough, they argue, to allow looser restrictions on most development. In fact the NEF 40 zone, the area where no residential development is allowed, would shrink almost to the airport boundaries, under the revised scenario.

Houses could be allowed much closer to the airport, they argue, if the proper controls are put in place.

“Additional mechanisms, such as registering caveats on title, entering into indemnity agreements, and notifying purchasers of airport noise considerations are tools that could be utilized in addition to land use restrictions in the Winnipeg context,” they said in their report.

They pointed to Richmond, British Columbia, and Mississauga, Ontario, where regulations allow development in noisier areas. Both communities are located under the flight paths of considerably busier airports than Winnipeg. Both allow residential infill nearer to the airport. But they require engineering studies and ways to keep the noise to an acceptable level. Winnipeg does not yet have those powers.

“This is an important and long-overdue step forward for Manitoba’s largest airport and the area surrounding it,” said Johnson.

The City of Calgary is in the process of revising its NEF which could have the effect of opening land near the airport to residential development. And as other once-remote airports – hello, Edmonton – increasingly find themselves surrounded by homes, the issue of noise will be a pressing one.

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Categories: Winnipeg