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Brackendale airport re-emerging as issue

Advisory committee proposed

Don Patrick is a well-spoken bulk of a man. With a baseball hat pulled over his brow, a gold chain glinting on his neck and a fuzzy dog sniffing around the grass, he brings presence to a place that doesn’t have much.

Patrick has been involved with the Brackendale airport in one way or another since its inception decades ago. Though he doesn’t take to the sky so much anymore, he still puts time into the Squamish Flying Club, where he works as secretary. Ask him about the state of the airport, and the man unloads. He points out things that, considered from his perspective, are metaphors for the district’s historical disinterest in the place, perhaps because some citizens in Brackendale live in utter opposition to the area, or perhaps because a creative spirit has yet to build on what’s already there.

Next to the green clubhouse building, which is currently shared with a commercial enterprise, is a semi-circle of mossy rocks — a memorial for fallen pilots. Beyond that are a few fuel tanks, the surrounding grass, which springs from district-owned land, rather overgrown.

“That brush should be maintained by the district,” he says. “They try their best, but they don’t do anything.”

It goes on. The tarmac is chipped, which is dangerous. And, as a helicopter lands, its propeller beating like a slowing drum roll, the tarmac suddenly looks overcrowded with fixed wing and propeller craft, a situation that could see a plane tip thanks to downdrafts from helicopters. Patrick remembers this summer’s rockslide on Highway 99, when the airport became a hub of activity. Choppers were taking off, as were planes, and people were wandering around the tarmac swinging briefcases.

“If you went down to the small boat harbour, they had the emergency program telling people what to do. But there was no one up here. No one thinks about this place.”

Thor Froslev thinks about — and not kindly. The pony-tailed local celebrity is one of Brackendale’s more recognizable figures, not least because of his involvement with the Brackendale Art Gallery and the annual eagle count. He despises the airport.

'I’m totally opposed,” he says. “It was built by local amateur airport enthusiasts, and that's what it’s supposed to be for. It's not an airport; it's a landing strip. It's not an airport.”

Undaunted by such opposition, the flying club is appealing to the district to pick up what they view as a load of slack. They propose the formation of an Airport Advisory Commission, which would include stakeholders, whether commercial or, as in the case of Froslev, opposed.

In recent years, Squamish council has steered mostly clear of airport involvement, even though the land is district owned, which some say makes local government the airport authority. Growth would require better maintenance, but also more safety procedures. Further, in order to have new hangars or buildings built on the land, water has to be run into the area.

“The first thing is water,” says Patterson. “We have no water period. The problem is that the fire department will not sign off on any building without water.”

It’s possible to extend a line from Don Ross Secondary, but Froslev hopes that doesn’t happen.

“How rude to ask your neighbours to live under an airport,” he says. “It's loud already. Once you open the door for somebody, they push it even further. If Whistler wants people up in Whistler, let them get an airport. We don't want to be Whistler's airport. And besides, we've got Pemberton.”

While previous councils have been hands off, there are signs that that could change. In a recent session with a governance consultant, when new councillors were asked to isolate one priority, Rob Kirkham took a piece of paper and, in green letters, scrawled “Legitimizing the airport” across its breadth.

Mayor Greg Gardner, meanwhile, sees the place as deserving of interest. Management lacks efficiency, even though the district turns a profit off the place in the role of landowner.

“It is an issue,” he said after a recent council meeting. “The management of the airport is an issue the community needs to look at. My understanding is the district makes an income of about $700 per month.”