By John Swartz
Orillia council held a special meeting Thursday morning to discuss, and eventually adopt a series of emergency measures regarding the use of waterfront parks in Orillia.
There have been many complaints to councillors and observations in general regarding the number of people using Couchiching Beach and Tudhope Parks by what appear to be people not from Orillia.
It’s not just the high number of park users, but how pandemic guidelines and prohibitions are not being observed which have many people, and those on the emergency management committee, concerned
While many are keenly interested in what new measures are, those who have been asking why fines are not being addressed will no doubt be pleased with what the City’s manager of legislative services, Shawn Crawford had to say at one point more than half way through the almost 2 hour meeting.
“Our philosophy with enforcement, as council is aware, is really to educate and seek compliance. We are sort of past that phase now and we have transferred into what I’m going to say is a zero tolerance approach. If we are seeing groups of more than ten congregating in our parks,” said Crawford, “what is going to happen is those particular folks are going to be charged. We’re at that point now, so this is just an opportunity to make the public and council aware that’s where we are at.”
The fine is $750.
The motion which passed will have non-residents charged $50 to park in waterfront parking lots and at Tudhope Park. Parking in area streets near the parks will be restricted to residents.
This will be accomplished by issuing parking passes to any Orillia resident who wants one (they should be available next week) and will be distributed at several places. Chief administrative officer Gayle Jackson said they hope to have some drive up service. Passes will be tied to a license plate and households with more than one car can get a passes for each of their vehicles if needed.
Other downtown parking lots will still have their normal time limits (which until July 31 parking is free), but non-residents will have a 2 hour limit imposed.
Also in the motion, non residents will be charged $50 to use the Couchiching Beach Park and Collins Drive boat launches Thursdays through Sundays. Residents will continue to be able to use the launches anytime and the parking pass will be their proof of residency.
Also, property owners who wish to do CNE style parking using their driveways and lawns for parking will be attracting the attention of by-law officers; their tool will be zoning regulations since most residences and businesses are not zoned as parking lots.
In the motion was council endorsement of the emergency management team’s decision to start issuing tickets as noted above, and to authorize ticketing and towing of vehicles.
Councillor Ted Emond moved an amendment directing staff to designate non-resident parking lots at both parks if staff are able to logistically make it work. The suggestion was to use the lots opposite the liquor store on Mississaga Street and the lot by the baseball diamond at Tudhope.
“In order to manage capacity we dedicate a parking lot,” in each park area for non-residents Emond said. “When those parking lots are full we turn away individuals.” He added this method is less exclusionary and allows non-residents to buy into using our parks.
Jackson said they would try but there are number of considerations such as additional staffing and payment processors they hadn’t prepared for in order to start the program by Thursday next week. This would leave all the other lots free for residents (and quickly make apparent those who should be in the non-resident lots). If it can’t work, non –residents will be charged at each lot on entry, and of course parking on the streets (and boulevards as happens) will be restricted to residents only.
Mayor Steve Clarke led debate indicating he has taken time to visit the parks during the last two weekends.
“Many visitors have been wonderful and very compliant and certainly many have not,” said Clarke. In particular during discussion on the boat launches and how usage fees would be collected, he said the issue is more than them being used.
“The boat launches have presented some significant lack of physical distancing situations. There is nobody there to enforce, we just do not have the manpower, and so I believe this report’s resolution should cover off boat launches as well,” said Clarke.
One additional part-time by-law officer will be hired and the City was just finalizing hiring a part-time officer authorized at budget. There are 4 full-time officers.
Several councillors commented they have received many calls and emails about the high use of the parks, and how they are being used. It was revealed people are putting up tents in the parks and on the beaches and councillor Ralph Cipolla referred to one email about how the tents are being used.
“I think the main goal of this is to protect our citizens. I went to Moose Beech, there were tents on the beach,” said Cipolla, “on the sand.”
“Stop the tents. People are using them as toilets and there is no social distancing taking place” according to one email writer Cipolla said.
Later in the meeting when Councillor Tim Lauer had the floor, he referred back to the tent issue, “All I know is it’s a monopoly of a rather large space and our beaches are not that big.”
Counicllor Mason Ainsworth commented frequently at this meeting, and often questioned the assumption many park users are from out of town, and even if they were they should be welcome.
“We need to really think about what really is the issue. Do we have a problem with people coming to our community and enjoying our parks? I don’t think that’s the case. I think we are happy to have people come from outside our communities to use these parks,” said Ainsworth.
“I know councillor Cipolla mentioned people potentially using them (tents) as washrooms and that sort of thing, well obviously that’s disgusting and not acceptable, but that’s an enforcement issue. People are doing things they are not supposed to be doing in the park, whether they are from Orillia, or they are from outside of Orillia, it’s an enforcement issue.”
The City does have a prohibition for using tents in parks and beaches, but the director of community services, Ray Merkley, said the regulation was originally intended to keep people from setting up long-term and staff have not been enforcing it for single day use and the regulation could be enforced at this time.
Several councillors also commented about the amount of garbage left behind and the number of people clearly not observing distancing rules and groups of more than 10 people being together and the appearance it’s people from out of town.
“This is not about any particular person being in the park, its behavior and volume. The volume of people we are getting, even with different enforcement, would still be problematic,” said Clarke, other issues aside.
On the boat launch, several councils have tried over the years to create some kind of user pay system to use the boat launches and to date have been unsuccessful coming up with a system or convincing enough councillors to do it (though there was a trial one summer about 20 years ago). It looks like the COVID-19 pandemic is proving the back door to do it now.
“We are probably one of the few places in Ontario that doesn’t charge for boat launches. To me that’s a mistake we’ve been making for quite a while,” said Lauer.
“We have a lovely sign that says residents only and only launch one boat at a time and none of that is being adhered to,” Lauer said. “I tour the parking lot on a regular basis and I can assure you that almost every vehicle in that parking lot is from somewhere else other than Orillia.”
“The other issue is obviously what’s going on in our parks and this to me this is just a straight up a health and safety issue,” said Lauer. “I’m assuming the intent of the charge for parking is to discourage use.”
Hope The Measures Work
After some time debating every nook and cranny of the report and motion, Lauer brought things back to the expediency of acting.
“This is a short-term fix. This has got to happen quickly. I don’t think we need to get into sorting out every possible scenario that may come along, or every idiosyncrasy. I think what we need to do is just have a blanket charge, let’s get through the next 6 to 8 weeks and then over the winter we can refine some of these things,” Lauer said.
Several councillors took pains to not portray the issue as a stay out of Orillia move and Councillor Pat Hehn summed thing up nicely.
“I believe we have to be really careful on the message we give out. We’re doing this because of COVID. We’re not trying to scare people away from coming to our parks. We want people to be here, but just not now,” said Hehn.
Councillor Jay Fallis expressed an underlying concern about the health aspect of the problem of crowded parks and beaches.
“If that means limiting the numbers at beaches, or even closing the beach, I think that’s something we have to consider if we continue to see the problems that we are having,” said Fallis.
Emond wanted to make sure Thursday’s meeting wasn’t just an exercise in looking like council was doing something.
“It’s not good enough just to pass regulations. We have to advertise and promote what we are doing, but we have to also demonstrate to people who come here that we are serious about it, and seriousness in this case is only demonstrated by reminding people directly to move on, or to indicate the consequence of misbehavior,” said Emond.
(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia)