ENTRY #840: First city council made a promise of a paved trail through the Medway Valley north of Fanshawe Park Road. Then city council made a policy that changed the protocols for trail building in London. So what happens when the promise and the policy clash? A compromise few people really like.
Thursday, April 11, 2013 – London
When city council makes a promise that aims a nature trail one way and then subsequently passes a policy that aims it in the opposite direction, confusion and conflict is virtually assured.
That’s the dilemma in which council is caught as it prepares to decide, next week, which between the promise or the policy is worth keeping. There is no trail through the middle of this, so whatever the decision there will be some very angry citizens.
Perhaps even some angry councillors.
What we’re talking about here is a trail through the northern section of the Medway Valley heritage forest, one piece of which is a certified environmentally sensitive area, or ESA. The northern section extends from Fanshawe Park to Sunningdale Road along the Medway Creek.
In the last decade, after what can only be described as one of city council’s least smart decisions ever, a sewer trunkline was pushed through the valley along the creek from Gainsborough Road virtually to the city’s northern border.
The construction caused untold death and destruction to the habitat and its inhabitants. Perhaps worse, at least if you are a real lover of nature in its natural state, the sewer line quickly encouraged new subdivisions on either side of the little river.
And the folks who bought those new and often pricey homes quickly fell in love with the idea of exploring the wilderness virtually next door. Some 16,000 visited the area last year.
Council’s decision back then wasn’t applauded by everyone. So in order to create more support, council in 2004 made this promise: Once the sewer line was completed north of Fanshawe, a paved walking trail would be built on top, both to allow regular maintenance of the line and recreational use of the forest.
From that point onward, the sewer line was linked directly to the asphalt trail; the benefit of one created the other.
A few years later the city officials had a change of mind. In developing new protocols for nature trails they decided – and council subsequently approved this recommendation – there should be no direct trail access through an environmentally sensitive area. In other areas, depending on use and natural sensitivity, trails could be narrow and dirt, wider and woodchipped, wider still and gravelled or paved.
This latter decision is now slowly being applied across the city, not without controversy because it sometimes means historic trails are arbitrarily relocated, curtailed or closed off.
In the northern Medway, where no formal trail exists beyond the first 500 or so meters above Fanshawe, all work stopped while the new trail policy was being developed. For five years nothing has happened – apart, perhaps, from a lot of complaining from the new neighbours in adjacent subdivisions.
Although trail building was stopped, trail planning continued. But the plan was increasingly being bent to fit the new policy. And the neighbours were increasingly restless as it slowly became apparent the proposed trail was bending away from the promise.
After much talk with and among ratepayer associations, interest groups and concerned citizens, much costly work with consultants, a series of possibilities was developed. Tuesday night they were unveiled for the public, along with a staff recommendation. You can read all the documents here and here.
What Andrew Macpherson, the city’s manager of parks planning and design, outlined could at best be described as an unholy compromise in that it clearly violates the city’s policy. The trail does go through an ESA, howbeit via a boardwalk over the really sensitive parts with woodchips at either end.
And just as clearly it violates the city’s promise. There is more asphalt north of Fanshawe and south of Sunningdale. But the middle section is gravel and narrow.
The public gallery at City Hall was packed for Mr. Macpherson’s presentation. Almost two dozen Londoners rose to express their opinion. Virtually everyone was against what was proposed – residents because it wasn’t the easy-travelling asphalt corridor they were promised, naturalists because it opened a heritage forest to far more traffic than they felt prudent.
Perhaps the most effective reaction came from those who argued anything less than asphalt all the way meant the trail would not be accessible to everyone.
Said Michael Dawthrone, chairperson of city council’s accessibility advisory committee: “One in seven people in our community has a disability. So many trails in London cannot be considered for accessibility, but this one, because of the sewer system, could be. We were told every opportunity to provide accessibility would be taken – we’d like to see that promise honoured.”
On the other side, former city councillor Sandy Levin asked: “If you provide access through here do you provide access through every part of this ESA and then to every ESA in the city? That’s your dilemma.”
Matt Brown, the councillor for Ward 7 which includes the northern section of the Medway heritage forest, rebutted that point. “Some have worried that asphalt here creates a precedent. I have to disagree. This is a unique situation and requires its own solution.”
That solution, he argued, should be to protect areas of the forest not touched by the sewer line, but otherwise to pave it through. “Essentially what we’re talking about is that a commitment was made and the solution going forward requires a compromise.”
Ultimately, and with some reluctance, the planning committee agreed. As Bud Polhill, the committee chairperson said afterward: “It has to be one or the other, either the trail is accessible to everyone and there is no trail for anyone.”
It is unfortunate for whatever wild things stand in the way, but we’re far past the “no trail for anyone” option.