Sarnia cracking down on nature trail abusers

Encroachment on the Howard Watson Nature Trail will no longer be tolerated, city hall says. Here, a homeowner has replaced native growth with garden landscaping on what is public land. George Mathewson

George Mathewson

Sarnia is cracking down on property owners who encroach on the Howard Watson Nature Trail.

After years of reminders and warnings city hall is ready to initiate legal action against residents who treat the nature trail like an extension of their own back yards.

The move follows a recent inspection that revealed numerous offences, including vegetable gardens, woodpiles, fire pits, mowed lawns and even garden sheds encroaching on public land.

One homeowner cleared the entire area between his property line and the trail this spring, cutting down native trees, ripping out the underbrush, laying down mulch and added his own landscaping.

What took decades to grow naturally was “basically wiped out in a weekend,” said Alan Shaw, the city’s acting planning and building director.

“The problem is, this is not their property, it’s public property. It’s everybody’s property.”

The Watson Nature Trail is a 16-kilometre linear park that runs right through Sarnia more or less uninterrupted from Confederation Street to Camlachie.

But human encroachment, new subdivisions and a planned road extension under the Highway 402 overpass are putting the squeeze on its fauna and flora.

Coun. Anne Marie Gillis addressed the offenders directly at a city council meeting last week.

“You do not own the parts of the nature trail that you think you do,” she said. “It is not an extension of your property. You may not like what’s growing there, as part of the Carolinian forest, but it is a nature trail … Leave the trail alone, and we’ll get along just fine.”

Coun. Mike Kelch said the time for warnings is over.

“There is a bylaw. There is a bylaw enforcement team. We need to be serious about enforcing (it),” he said.

The individual who clear-cut the trail has been ordered to remove his landscaping and restore the site with native trees and plants. He is co-operating with parks and rec staff.

But other individuals who have ignored repeated warnings in the past will face legal action, Shaw said.

“We could actually lay charges for destruction of property, which would be a criminal charge. Or we could charge under the bylaw and seek a fine of up to $5,000, along with a court order to have the property returned back to its naturalized environment.”

Meanwhile, grading and surface restoration is set to begin on the trail’s west end, starting at Mandaumin Road. Sections will be closed incrementally on weekdays as the work proceeds.

Up to $220,000 is earmarked for the improvements through Bluewater Trails and a federal infrastructure grant.

The encroachment crackdown, however, won’t save one section of the trail. The 20-year-old plan to extend the Rapids Parkway beneath Highway 402 to a new intersection at Exmouth Street is going ahead, said city engineer Andre Morin.

In fact, vegetation that area will be cleared shortly for a topographic survey to determine the location for the new road, as well as new water and sewer mains, he said.

The new road extension will shoulder the rerouted trail off to the side but is needed to relieve vehicle traffic pressure in the area, Morin said.