TWO SIDES OF A TRAIL
A proposal for a 127-kilometre rail-trail through Wellington, Waterloo, Perth and Huron brings out opponents — and supporters
By Keith Roulston
The phrase “recreational trail” is almost sure to cause worry for farmers and rural property owners living in the area of a proposal.
Farmers in both Huron and Perth Counties have come out to meetings in the last year that were organized by the two counties to explore the issues involved with a proposal to turn the old CP Rail right-of-way from Guelph to Goderich into a 127-kilometre trail for hikers and bikers in summer, with the possibility of snowmobile use, as well as cross-country skiing in winter months.
Both counties were reacting to a proposal from the G2G Rail Trail Advisory Committee to build the trail and an offer from the province to transfer the lease for the former rail- line (which it took over in 1995) to the two counties.
Huron County farmers were the most recent to react to the trail proposal, attending a county-sponsored meeting in Blyth on November 21, 2013. There were 100 people present, but a show of hands at the beginning showed more people supported the idea of a trail than opposed it. When the meeting was opened for questions, however, it was the farmers who owned property adjacent to the proposed trail who dominated comments and questions.
Previously, Perth County had held a similar meeting in Milverton last April, sending notices to all adjoining landowners.
Before opening the meeting for questions, Huron County officials tried to establish the current state of the proposal and the legislation that would be in effect for any trail if it did go ahead. Scott Tousaw, director of planning and development, emphasized no decision has been made about the project. After the G2G Rail Trail Advisory Committee brought the idea to Huron County Council, councillors had asked staff to explore the concept further including holding a public meeting. Unless council decides immediately not to continue with the project, there will likely be more public meetings, he said.
Cindy Fisher, tourism co-ordinator for the County of Huron explained that under the province’s offer, use would be restricted to current uses such as leases with adjoining farmers for crossings, and for passive recreational use: hiking and bicycling in summer, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling in winter. There would be no use of motorized vehicles such as all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) or dirt bikes.
She explained that portions of the rail bed have already been developed for recreational trail use including the Kissing Bridge Trailway, a 45-kilometre stretch from Guelph to Millbank, the 13.6- kilometre, Goderich-Auburn Rail Trail (GART) and the Greenway Trail a short section in Blyth.
The advantages offered by such a trail include a safe place for people to enjoy an active lifestyle and an opportunity for people to appreciate the natural environment and agriculture, Fisher said. Trails attract tourists and tourists create jobs and put money into local economies through people staying in accommodation and buying meals.
She outlined the concerns, include the possibility of trail users trespassing on neighbouring property, property damage caused by trespassers, the use of ATVs which go off the trail, and policing of the trail.
Rebecca Rathwell, a county project manager, outlined the legislation already in place that would apply to trails, trail users and adjoining property owners.
Trail users assume legal responsibility when they enter the trail, she said. Adjoining landowners are not liable for any harm that comes to someone trespassing on their property as long as they don’t knowingly cause risk. The experience of trails established elsewhere is that trespassing is not a problem, Rathwell said.
The Line Fences Act comes into play and before a trail could be set up there would need to be criteria setting out where fences needed to be installed and how they will be paid for.
Trail maintenance on other similar trails is carried out by agreements with stewardship groups that contract to look after a specific portion of the trail. Agreements would need to be in place before a trail could go forward, she said.
When it came to question period the fears of farmers flooded out.
A major concern among comments from adjacent landowners was the problem of dealing with ATV and dirt bike traffic already using the trail illegally.
Gordon Gross, who lives east of Auburn and has to cross the old railbed to get from one part of his farm to another, said trail bikes speed through the former railway on his property and can’t be seen until the last moment because brush has grown up along the right-of-way.
Another farmer called ATVs and snowmobiles “nothing but a nuisance” as they speed through his property and he tries to cross back and forth from one part of his farm to another. Pick-up trucks also drive down the old rail line and trespass, he said. “You’re not going to stop that by having a trail.”
But also in the audience were ATV enthusiasts who objected to the restrictions in the province’s proposed lease prohibiting their vehicles from the potential trail.
ATV riders need some place to ride, one man argued. “They’re (trespassing) in the fields because there’s no place to go,” he said.
“I don’t see why we can’t share,” argued another. If ATVs were licensed to use the trail, there would be less chance of drivers misbehaving because they would be easily identified by their registration number, he said.
Others dismissed the need for the trail and the possibility it would be a boost to the economy.
“There’s already an abundance of trails,” said Larry Plaetzer of Auburn. “A long trail would have low use.”
He suggested that the province is trying to download its responsibility for the old rail-line to the county and wondered where the money would come from to rehabilitate and maintain a trail.
Plaetzer also worried about complaints from trail users against nearby farmers. “We don’t have strong enough right-to-farm legislation,” he said suggesting sooner or later some trail user would sue a farmer for creating an unpleasant smell.
Others worried about the expense of rehabilitating the old railway line where several bridges were removed by CP Rail when it abandoned the line in 1988. “There are a few million dollars worth of bridges (needed) to get from Walton to Auburn” one person said. This would create dangerous conditions for trail users.
Still others questioned why anyone would want to use the trail. “If you go from Blyth to Monkton it’s extremely boring,” one woman said.
County staff wrote down all the concerns and comments from the audience.
Geoff VanderBaaren, a Perth County planner who helped organize the earlier Milverton meeting, attended by about 100 people, said the same process of recording was used at that meeting and many of the same concerns like trespassing and liability were raised there. Since the meeting, written concerns have also been added to the report.
County staff continue to investigate the issues involved the in the county taking over the lease, VanderBaaren said, and will take a report back to council and then seek further direction.
Darryl Terpstra, president of the Perth County Federation of Agriculture says his group was proactive when it heard of the proposal for the trail, sending out letters to all owners of land adjacent to the old right-of-way informing them of the dates of meetings. Representatives of the Federation also attended the Milverton meeting.
Concerns included biosecurity for farmers with livestock pasturing right up to the edge of the old rail line, who maintains fences, liability issues where a culvert goes under the old rail bed and trespassing where houses or barns are near the proposed trail.
Perth farmers who need to cross the old railway to get from the front to back of their farm also share the concerns of Huron County farmers about dealing with traffic on the trail.
But on the flip side, Terpstra says, the abandoned railway right-of-way is not being maintained at all now except when a tree might fall onto a farmer’s property and he cleans it up himself. Supporters of the trail seem to be well organized with access to funds to maintain the trail which might improve the situation for adjacent landowners.
The complicated situation is illustrated by the use of the trail by snowmobiles, he says. If snowmobile clubs don’t buy in and use the trails, it will be hard for user groups to offer winter use of the trail because they don’t have equipment to groom a ski trail. But if snowmobiles are speeding down the trail it’s a worry to farmers going back and forth across the trail.
Terpstra has personal experience with a walking trail that already adjoins property he owns. From his own experience he doesn’t think the trail would be worse than the current abandoned railway line.
Adjacent landowners needn’t be so concerned about adverse effects of a recreational trail, according to David Parker, a farmer from Belwood in Wellington County.
When Wellington County approached the Wellington County Federation of Agriculture nearly a decade ago to ask the group to nominate a representative for a committee looking at converting the abandoned CP Rail line to a trail, Parker, then a federation director, volunteered. He had the usual concerns about trespassing by trail users, the need for fencing, etc. Though he didn’t live near the proposed Kissing Bridge Trailway, his farm was within a mile and a half of the 47 kilometre Elora Cataract Trailway, which makes use of another old railway right-of-way.
Parker has just wound up nine years of sitting on the committee and found that initial fears of adjacent farmers didn’t prove to be reality.
On the fencing issue, for instance, if a farmer came to the board saying a fence was needed a co-operative solution was found. The board would provide the materials and the farmer would provide the labour to build the fence. It worked out for everyone, he said.
There’s also been a tidal shift in farming practices with livestock operations declining since the trail began, he said. He thinks that between Guelph and Millbank there may not be more than six farms that have livestock within 50 yards of the trail. Most of these are Mennonite farms with horses.
The other end of the G2G proposal, from Goderich to Auburn, has also been an established trail for several years. Ben Ven Diepenbeek, reeve of Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh, through which the trail travels, says he can’t remember any complaints about the trail being brought to his council.
That section of the trail contains probably the most spectacular and most-visited portion of the entire 127-kilometre length of the former rail-line. When the line was discontinued in 1988, a number of determined Goderich residents saw the abandoned bridge as a glorious opportunity. They successfully persuaded local officials to get involved and delay the demolition of the bridge until they could raise public support.
Carved into boards on the bridge are the names of the many people who came forward with donations to keep the bridge intact and to turn it into a safe pedestrian crossing.
Now called the Menesetug Bridge, it attracts thousands of people for a unique view of Goderich harbour and Lake Huron, so high over the Maitland that the seagulls fly below you. Many go further along the old rail-line as far as where it crosses Hwy. 21 and passes near the tomb of the town’s founding father, Tiger Dunlop.
At the Blyth meeting, trail supporters countered the argument that nobody would use the rest of the trail.
Hiker Ann Melady of Dublin said she knows a lot of people from across the province who like to hike and would want to use the trail if it was developed. “And we do not go off the trail and we do clean up after ourselves,” she said.
A cyclist said there would be users and an economic spinoff.
“People would come from as far away as Quebec to use a 127-kilometre trail,” she said. Because of the length of the trail, many would break up their journey by staying in bed and breakfasts. “I just think it’s amazing,” she said.
Napier Simpson of Goderich, representing Regional Tourism Organization 4 backed up that opinion. “Trails are a wonderful tourism magnet,” he said and pointed to the Le P’tit Train du Nord Linear Park, a 230-kilometre trail on a former railway line running north from Montreal to the Laurentian Mountains that gets 600,000 users a year.
Years of watching use of the Wellingon County trails shows a variety of users, David Parker says. Generally about a five-kilometre distance on either side of an urban area will see the heaviest use as families walk and ride the trail. More serious hikers and bikers extend their use for about 10 kilometres. Beyond that, the really dedicated hikers and bikers take on doing the whole length of a trail.
Parker has also become a trail user. He took up cycling again while teaching grandchildren to ride bicycles. Roads are not safe for cycling the way they were when he was young, he says, so trails like the Kissing Bridge or Elora Cataract provide safe places for riders, young and old.
Having rediscovered cycling he’s ridden both of the two Wellington County trails from end to end and gone farther afield. A ride on a trail along the Welland Canal showed him an example of the bike culture. He happened to be using the trail the same day the Lake-to-Lake bicycle race was taking place. He had to yield the path to 1,000 racers in waves of 200 at a time.
Another illustration of the economic spinoffs trails can provide came when he cycled Quebec’s famous Le P’tit Train du Nord Linear Park. A local man had set up a shuttle bus service to transport people and their bikes to wherever they wanted to start or back to their starting point when they finished. He told Parker that he had transported 4,000 people and their equipment that year at a cost of $60 per person.
“It starts small,” Parker warns. A restaurant might not be able to pay its bills with just the business brought by a trail but it can provide extra business to help it prosper.
Paul VanderMolen of Seaforth is one of the few people who actually have seen the trail from one end to the other. In October, 2012, he and Doug Cerson, a Welling-ton/Waterloo-based business cons-ultant who is executive director of the G2G Rail Trail Advisory Committee, drove the entire 127-km length of the trail in a utility vehicle, taking video and photographs along the way. Travel on the Kissing Bridge Trailway was easy but past Linwood as they headed west, there were many obstructions from fallen trees to farm gates installed across the right-of-way, that required them to detour for miles to pass. Even with these interruptions they reported that about 90 per cent of the former railway line is passable for hikers and bikers.
VanderMolen said the view from the trail is constantly changing, almost with every farm it passes through. One place it will cut through woods, then it will go through fields of corn, then bush again and then soybean fields. While that may seem unappealing for people surrounded by corn and soybean fields every day, the opportunity to see farming up close is intriguing for people from urban areas, he says.
In the 25 years since CP lifted the rails, the old right-of-way has changed. In some areas the borders of the rail bed, which can be 75-80 feet wide, have naturalized with trees growing up. CP helped this process in places even when the trains still ran, by planting trees to provide snow protection for the line.
In other places, farmers have begun planting crops right up to road bed, bringing hikers and bikers up close to farming.
As a cyclist himself, VanderMolen says that a 127-km trail, the longest in Ontario, will be attractive to many. The relatively level, straight trail is very attractive to cyclists who can cover a lot of distance in a day.
As for the cost of replacing bridges, trail supporters are already in the process of replacing one bridge in the eastern part of the trail and will eventually raise the money to replace others, he says.
Parker does have some suggestions for improvements in trails. Most trails have too few portable toilets along the way, leaving too many trail users to depend on natural cover when nature calls.
More trail-side picnic areas would also be helpful, he says. In the many miles he has cycled on trails he has only ever seen one case of trespassing and that was when a couple left the trail to eat lunch under a hydro pylon.
As for farmers concerns about ATV traffic already using the old rail line, Parker agrees damage is sometimes done by ATVs where people drive onto embankments to avoid barriers to motorized vehicles but he thinks most of the problems are not caused by visitors but from local riders.
For those ATV owners frustrated they would be barred from a trail, Parker thinks ATVs could make their case to be part of the trail use by building trust. He suggests a group start out by offering to be a steward group for a piece of the trail, looking after maintenance of one section. “I’d encourage them to take a leadership role,” he said.
Then, after building a favourable relationship, the group might ask for a section of the trail to be opened for ATV use. If they demonstrated responsible use they would earn the use of the trail.
He sees advantages, if ATV groups organize and police themselves, of allowing the riders of the trails. ATVers tend to be younger than cyclists and hikers and younger workers are always needed to help maintain the trail, he says.
As well, he points to the excellent signing system that snowmobile clubs have set up on their trails that gives riders directions to food and fuel outlets.
The fears of adjacent landowners are probably years from being put to the test even if the trail was to be supported by the counties. Meanwhile, one municipality along the way has vocal in its opposition.
In September, Morris-Turnberry council voted to send a letter to all other municipalities along the proposed trail expressing its opposition to the idea. “My concern is this is being promoted by people who don’t have this in their backyard,” said Deputy-Mayor Jason Breckenridge in proposing the motion.
No doubt the debate will go on and no doubt many adjacent landowners will find it hard to be convinced that hikers and bikers can co-exist with farm use.◊