Ministry safety measures at dams are ruining natural appeal, say councillors
MUSKOKA – Scenic dams around the region are under threat of gaudy signs and fencing, say District of Muskoka councillors.
A sign a the dam near Brunel Locks in Huntsville is an example of what a Ministry of natural Resources sign could look like.
File Photo by Alison Brownlee
Tony White, commissioner of engineering and public works for the district, told councillors the Ministry of Natural Resources had approached the district about installing signs and fencing as safety measures around Bala Falls.
Similar signs have been recommended for, and installed near, ministry-controlled dams across Muskoka. The ministry said the signs are part of safety measures recommended in its 2011 public safety measures plan.
The signs in Bala would be attached to district bridges and some of the fencing would go on district property. The ministry’s plans therefore required the district’s approval.
Since the falls are in the Township of Muskoka Lakes, the district went to gather feedback about the ministry’s proposal from the township about a year ago.
But the township had concerns with the fencing, so the district held off on taking a position regarding the ministry’s request, said White.
However, the ministry is now moving forward with installing the signs.
The ministry is proposing two signs – a danger sign above the north dam and a warning sign below the south dam. Both signs would be about four feet by eight feet in size. Neither would be visible from the road.
“I don’t believe there is an issue with them from either (the township or the district perspective),” said White.
The request for sign permits landed on the engineering and public works committee table because the ministry is already accepting requests for proposals from sign makers.
Bracebridge district coun. Scott Young noted his municipality has several structures similar to the Bala Falls dams.
“We’ve grappled with the issue repeatedly, either with Ontario Hydro or Lakeland Hydro,” said Young. “We’ve been trying to figure out ways for people to be adequately warned without damaging the scenic character of the area.”
He noted pristine picnic areas often just happen to have a dam and powerhouse nearby.
“Suddenly (the ministry) proposes eight-foot-high fencing with barbed wire – don’t laugh, it’s absolutely what they proposed to do,” said Young. “And those signs are enormous. They’re not signs, they’re billboards.”
Huntsville district coun. Brian Thompson agreed that bright red signs would be distracting in a natural setting.
Huntsville’s Brunel Locks is an example of a landscaped picnic area with a nearby dam. The dam does have a large, red warning sign cautioning passersby of danger due to fast running water.
But where danger is evident large signs and fencing are not needed, argued Young.
“To me, there is nothing more obvious than the danger of an area like this where you’ve got highways, railways, sluiceways, fast water, thundering waterfalls,” he said. “I mean, if people can’t decipher that there is some danger in this area then, frankly, they should probably not leave home in the morning.”
A small sign to warn pedestrians when they enter such an area should suffice, he said.
“The whole idea being proposed is absolute overkill,” said Young.
He urged the use of innocuous signs and fencing that do not detract from the scenery.
“If you have to have fencing, make an effort to recognize this is a scenic location. It should be something that blends in,” he said. “People are still going to climb it, cut holes in it, rip it up from the ground and crawl under it – the fencing is not going to do any good at all except for in the court room.”
He commented that one of the most frustrating parts of municipal governance is the idea of legal responsibility for people’s irresponsible behaviour.
“I’ve met with people who have been sued when someone has been injured or drowned, even when signs have been in place. It’s no fun to be sued and it’s no fun to be party in any way, shape or form to somebody drowning,” said Young. “But I would argue that probably close to 100 per cent of drownings have to do more with bad decisions made by individuals than by the placement of a sign or the direction of a fence.”
Young’s comments about potential legal action had several councillors asking what the ramifications would be if the district denied the ministry permission to install the signs and fencing.
White suggested committee members and staff not speculate about potential litigation outcomes in open session.
“But I don’t think it’s any secret that when people get litigious, they get the shotguns out and they fire at everybody,” cautioned White.
District coun. Phil Harding, from Muskoka Lakes, said he did not like the signs either.
“But as much as I would like to say, ‘No,’ I don’t think we can,” said Harding.
He argued that the signs may not even suit the purpose for which they will be designed.
“With a four-by-eight sign, people would be in danger by the time they read the small print on the sign and be too far gone,” he said.
However, he did support installing the signs. And he noted the township is working with the ministry on other less invasive safety measures such as rocks or shrubs in lieu of fencing.
Committee approved the ministry’s request to install signs and forwarded its decision to district council for consideration.