Residents near some of Hamilton’s most popular waterfalls are sounding off about the Hamilton Conservation Authority’s new plan to handle traffic congestion in their community.
The popularity of Webster Falls and Tews Falls in the Spencer Gorge means thousands of people flock to Dundas Peak every season, which has caused headaches for those living in Greensville. The small parking lots near the trail entrances fill up quickly, which has led to illegal parking and blocked roads in the community.
In an effort to cut down on the congestion, the Hamilton Conservation Authority (HCA) introduced a shuttle service in 2017 that would require people who wanted to view the falls to park at Christie Lake Conservation Area and ride the bus over to the Spencer Gorge Conservation Area.
That shuttle service has become immensely popular since its implementation. According to a report from the HCA, it kept 16,000 vehicles out of Greensville in its first year and 20,000 out of the community in 2019.
The report attributes last year’s increase to a number of factors, including the Dundas Peak being featured on a number of Toronto-area blogs as an ideal place to view the fall colours, as well as the city designating Greensville as a special parking enforcement area in 2019.
However, due to physical distancing measures, the shuttle will be discontinued this year when the waterfall areas are reopened to the public.
“It’s impossible to get the social distancing on a school bus, there’s only a front door,” said Lloyd Ferguson, chair of the HCA’s board of directors. “People won’t get on it, either. Because they’re afraid that they could be contaminated by somebody on the bus.”
Instead, the HCA will introduce a parking reservation program, no earlier than Sept. 1, which will require those who want to go to the falls to book a spot in one of the parking lots online ahead of time.
Ferguson said each reservation will have a strict two-hour time limit and will be enforced with paid duty officers.
“Anybody who comes into those areas without a ticket will not be able to get access. They’ll be turned away.”
Mark Osborne, who is part of the Preserve and Protect Webster’s and Tew’s Falls Greensville group, said he and his fellow residents aren’t happy with the solution.
“The whole idea here is to keep the cars out of Greensville,” said Osborne. “We support a reservation system, that’s what we want. But not bringing car traffic back into Greensville. That reservation system that we wanted was to be implemented with a shuttle, using Christie’s as a single point of entry.”
What Osborne fears is that a lack of enforcement of the two-hour time limit will lead to people overstaying their reservation slot, which will lead to frustration and traffic congestion when those who show up for their reservation can’t find parking.
“So you’re going to have cars waiting on the side of the road until they can get into the parking lots, people who have reservations then will get frustrated with that, they will then park illegally in Greensville, and then they will walk down the road with their reservation ticket into the park.”
Ferguson doesn’t think that situation is likely, however.
“We’ll have to police this and monitor it,” said Ferguson. “But I don’t anticipate that being a problem. I think, for the most part, people want to do what’s right. If they purchase a two-hour time slot — which is plenty of time to walk over and look at the falls, look around the park, and then leave, and open it up for somebody else to come in.”
Although Hamilton’s waterfalls have remained off-limits during the COVID-19 pandemic, Osborne said there have been plenty of people illegally trespassing and wandering into the Spencer Gorge anyway.
“And they’re still parking illegally in Greensville and walking in, despite the $250 parking ticket.”
Paul Johnson, director of Hamilton’s emergency operations centre, said Greensville is a “hot spot” and is a challenge to enforce, especially during the pandemic.
“We do know that an awful lot of people are coming from out of town there, and although they should still realize, and there’s certainly lots of good signage, sometimes, of course, they’re not reading the local media, they’re not picking up the local messages.”
Despite closing one of the parking lots near Tews Falls in recent weeks to discourage people from trespassing, Johnson said bylaw enforcement is stretched thin across the entirety of the city during the pandemic.
“From the standpoint of our person-power on the ground, it’s tough to cover as much area as Hamilton has, and as the weather gets better and better, more people are trying to get out and do things, so we continue to make those efforts and encourage the public, continue to phone in if you feel there are things that we need to tackle.”
Although many services and recreation areas are re-opening, it remains unclear how long the pandemic will go on, which means there are no concrete timelines for when physical distancing measures will be loosened.
Osborne said he understands the pandemic means the shuttle can’t operate but said it may be a better option for the HCA to keep some areas closed for the remainder of the year instead.
“The shuttle bus is working, and we do want a reservation system, so if you can’t implement a shuttle system this year, then close the parks for 2020,” said Osborne. “Bringing vehicles back into this community is only going to enrage the residents again.”
That doesn’t seem to be an option the HCA is considering, according to Ferguson.
“This whole thing has been a real balancing act,” said Ferguson. “We have to respect the neighbours’ rights to enjoyment of their homes. At the same time, these two parks are owned by the public and the roads are owned by the public.”
The parking reservation program isn’t permanent just yet and remains a pilot project at this time, and it will only start when health officials deem it safe to reopen trails.
That could be a while off for the trails in the Spencer Gorge — which are narrow and don’t leave much room for physical distancing — but Ferguson said that’s ultimately up to the medical officer of health.
“It may, in fact, be closed the whole year, but if it’s not, the public should have the right to go out and enjoy these facilities,” said Ferguson. “You can always be a critic, but we’re trying to do the best we can to manage both the congestion issue on the roads and the pandemic, and quite frankly, this is the best we could come up with. But we’ll measure it and make changes as necessary if it’s not working.”
Osborne said he and his fellow Greensville residents don’t want to keep people from enjoying the falls, but he said there has to be a better solution.
“It’s not that we don’t want them to visit the falls, but we need to manage this area,” said Osborne. “We only have a single road in here, to speak of. There’s no drinking water, there’s no washrooms, there’s no parking, there’s no infrastructure of any kind, and it has to be managed.”
The reservation system pilot program is scheduled to begin September 1 at the earliest and would run until November 15. Signs will be posted along Highway 5 to let visitors know about the online reservation system.
Staff will report back to the HCA’s board of directors on the success of the pilot once it’s completed and if it’s successful, it may replace the shuttle system going forward.