January 11, 2012

Fence sparks anger over dirt bikes

As published in The Erin Advocate

The new fence recently erected by Wellington County on the border of the old Erin Village landfill site has prompted a hostile response from residents who consider it a "huge scar" on a beautiful landscape and an unwelcome obstacle to hikers and wildlife.

Others consider the fence an unfortunate necessity, designed in part to discourage dirt bike and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) traffic, which has caused serious damage on Erin's drumlin – the long, glacier-deposited hill west of the village.

“We’ve always had this scheduled to have fencing put up at some point,” said Doug Konrad, manager of solid waste for Wellington County, which took over responsibility for the old landfill site ten years ago. They have had trouble with off-road vehicles using the site and causing erosion.

“We decided to move the plans forward a little bit and at least do one section of the site with chain link, the side that gave us most problems," said Konrad, explaining that the Ministry of Environment requires these types of sites to be fenced in to make sure monitor wells are not damaged. "This is the only thing we could reasonably do.”

The six-foot fence, with two cross-beams welded between each post, starts at the mill pond, across the river from Church St. W. It runs up the hill along the south-east border of the landfill, and down the other side. It is clearly visible from McMillan Park downtown.

"I am so upset to see this huge scar cutting into the beautiful emerald backdrop in Erin," said Melissa Livingston-Staples. "Those hills give our village a unique character. Why weren't we consulted about this change to our landscape?"

John Denison owns the property next to the landfill at the hilltop. Last May he wrote a letter to the Town of Erin regarding damage to his land by dirt bikes and ATVs. Town Council passed the matter to the County and wrote a letter requesting the OPP to increase their presence at the site. Mayor Lou Maieron is confident that the matter was handled properly.

The County had a legal obligation, a plan in place and money allocated in their budget, so the fence was erected. Konrad said more fencing can be expected to meet provincial standards.

Emma Bramma Smith walks the hilltop trail regularly and was shocked when she first discovered the fence. She says the dog-walkers and hikers who use the hills actually help to keep the off-road vehicles off the trails.

“We feel violated, and when you look at it, you can understand why,” she said. “It’s not just inconveniencing a bunch of dog walkers. Wildlife has even more right to that land than we do.”

Denison has worked hard to discourage dirt bikes and ATVs, but his fences have often been cut or removed. He says the machines cause noise and pollution, and have turned trails into slippery mud and boulders.

"This is my backyard. I walk there nearly every day. I enjoy the quiet and the view. If that new fence cuts down the machine traffic, I'm all for it," he said.

"I'm okay with hikers. I leave openings in the fence so people can come through without damaging the fence. They're walking on their own two legs getting exercise and fresh air. They mostly pick-up after themselves and their dogs. They're respectful of private property and I appreciate that."

Smaller animals can still get past the fence though gaps at the bottom, and hikers can still use the area by altering their routes. Machine riders are still accessing the landfill property by driving around the end of the fence on the frozen edge of the mill pond.

Livingston-Staples is unhappy with the mess left by the fence builders: trees uprooted, leftover pipe ends, fence materials and aerosol cans of metallic paint. She would also like to see the site put to better use in the future.

"If houses are not going to be built on the dump, why can't the gorgeous views be enjoyed by the residents and tourists and wildlife?" she asked. "Why can't the dump be recycled by nature and people, rather than closing it up and throwing it away, like it never existed?

"We love the hills and have always felt a closeness to nature up on the hill. It affects your soul when you are up there. It is a special place I hate to lose and I would like future generations to be able to enjoy it also. Walking is the oldest exercise and is still the best. Let's protect the trails of Erin."

Steve Revell leads the Town's Trails Committee, which is making trail improvements on public land with the help of the Rotary Club, and hopes to create a better network of trails in the future.

"We have to recognize the generosity of the landowners who have long allowed walkers to use this [hilltop] trail by providing narrow gateways," he said. "The big problem has always been the motorized vehicles which have ripped up the hillsides and made the trail surface prone to erosion. I can indeed sympathize with the landowners on this issue."

Bill Dinwoody, who chairs the Town's Recreation and Culture Committee, believes the fence should be viewed as environmental protection rather than a barrier. He is concerned, however, that the fence may intrude too close to the river.

"The key issue here is that these properties are private and people using these unsanctioned trails are in fact trespassing," he said. "Hikers are resilient and will follow other routes. Most people who hike do so because they love the environment and conservation and take it upon themselves to preserve the trail.

"Unfortunately, it is the 'few' who take it upon themselves to tear up landscape with motorized vehicles which in a way has caused this action. If ATV's and dirt bikes continue to use private lands, I foresee numerous fences and obstacles installed in the hills to curtail them.

"Maybe it is time for someone to develop trails for motorized vehicles, to give them a place away from private property."