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Experiences Managing Houghton Falls Preserve

January 16, 2017

TO: Town of Bell and Interested Parties

FROM: Charly Ray

At the request of several residents in the Town of Bell, I am writing to share my thoughts on the experiences here in the Town of Bayview with managing the Houghton Falls Nature Preserve as it may relate to the proposed Siskiwit Falls natural area. I am writing as a private citizen who also happens to be the current Town Chair in Bayview. These are not the “opinions” of the Town of Bayview.

The Houghton Falls Preserve has been a tremendous success with the public.  There have been challenges with this as the advocates for the Preserve did not anticipate the level of use we are experiencing. Despite the challenges, the overwhelming feedback is support for the Preserve and Town efforts to address issues. Really our biggest challenge is the few hostile neighbors to the Preserve.

I break the issues down into two categories – managing the traffic (parking and time of use) and impacts of use (trail erosion). In general, the main concerns are from one neighbor regarding after hours use and two other neighbors regarding impacts on the trail. Most of the neighbors in the immediate area do not share these concerns and are supportive of the Preserve.

Regarding traffic, the Preserve planners agreed to a very small parking area, to limit use and because the DNR wanted to keep it small. The lot holds about 8-10 cars. This turned out to be too small and overflow parking occurred on the adjoining street. The Town then established no parking on one side of the street to ensure resident and EMS vehicle access.  There have been several parking tickets issued by the County Sheriff which seems to have gotten the word out and parking has been much less of an issue this past year. Really it is only on a few days – a dozen? – in the summer when there is much overflow.

The extra traffic on Houghton Falls Rd. was a real inconvenience for the neighbors until we recently paved the road (with financial assistance from some of the residents.) It had become one of our most heavily traveled roads and required extra grading to keep the washboard to a minimum.

I am not familiar with the specific plans for the Siskiwit Falls area, but do know the layout of the property and you do not have many of the challenges facing us at Houghton Falls. For one, the roads around most of the Siskiwit Falls area are paved and none are dead ends. Secondly, there are already several cleared areas on the property with plenty of potential room for parking. My advice is to make any parking area in such a way that it may easily be expanded if needed.

Another aspect of the traffic issue was the use of the Preserve after hours. On several occasions we had people or groups staying in the Preserve after sunset (our original hours were sunrise to sunset) which raised two issues: safety of visitors as the trails pass near several cliffs difficult to see in the dark and disturbance to the neighbor who’s residence is closest to the lakeshore end of the Preserve. After trying to maintain the original hours with gate manual closures, we eventually settled on summer and winter hours to provide a clear open/closed time for the Preserve and installed an automated gate.

Again, at Siskiwit Falls you do not have the same challenges – there is a steep ravine but not a trail going along a series of dramatic cliffs and you do not have neighbors living within a few hundred feet of the primary attraction – the falls. I encourage you to consider a generous time of use policy and, as we demonstrated, you can make it more restrictive if necessary.

The impacts of the traffic on the trails and natural areas of the Preserve are an issue brought up by a few neighbors. There is no doubt that the amount of traffic has compacted the trails and made for some erosion. However, these impacts have been wildly overstated by the people bringing them up. I am a natural resource professional and do not see that the impacts are dramatic. The Bayfield Regional Conservancy (BRC) monitors the Preserve annually with a conservation mission and they have not found it to be of great concern. And the DNR monitors the Preserve and also has not found it to be a great concern.

But there is work to do to make the trails safer, more enjoyable and less impacting on the Preserve so the Town has obtained grants in the past and has one currently to make improvements. We have also worked with BRC assistance on volunteer work days to do minor trail work. Simply placing brush strategically along the trail has gone a long way in reducing the creation of unnecessary and erosive trails. We have more work planned and covered by a grant this year.

Towns are always concerned about costs related to a project like this and the advocates for Houghton Falls and on the Town Board at the time often repeated that this project would not cost the Town anything. That is not a useful way to approach these projects. If the Town is responsible for a property, they should anticipate there will be some costs. The value of this property to the Town residents far outweighs our expenses related to it. If the Town residents see the value in having public land then they will support some reasonable expenses.

Many of our expenses are directly related to the few people who have objected to the Preserve and raised issues about it. For example, we established the parking area and trail in consultation and financial assistance from the DNR and County. It was not until objecting neighbors, years later, inquired with zoning did we find we needed permits for a parking area and the trail, resulting in after the fact permit fees. The insistence of these few that we regulate the Preserve with additional ordinances led to the expense of publication of these ordinances (which we have yet to issue a single citation off of in the year they have been in place.)

There are many ways to address these costs besides Town revenues. Grants have been a big help to our trail improvement projects. Bayview has a “Room Tax” on short term rentals (5% I believe) which generates thousands of dollars for Preserve and Town Park expenses.  DNR has confirmed we could charge for parking fees or trail fees as long as they were reasonable and the fees went back into the expenses of the Preserve. We get several hundred dollars a season from the donation tube at the Preserve. Residents have also donated directly to Town to help.

 

Running Houghton Falls has not been without challenging times in our Town, but it is a beloved site that is a major attraction in our Town. I am sympathetic to the impacts this attention has had on the neighborhood and we have worked to address and minimize the impacts. Claims of the demise of Houghton Falls or thundering hoards trampling the neighborhood are wildly exaggerated. In fact, with our newly paved road, improved signage and automated gate I believe most of the concerns will fade. I do not believe the County or DNR would have been nearly so responsive to the concerns of our neighbors if they were managing the property.