Lanark County will proceed (for now) without Mississippi Mills Council input on rail trail

by Don Johnston, Friends of the Ottawa Valley Recreational Trail

What does the Mississippi Mills Council have to say about having snowmobiles and ATVs use the Ottawa Valley Rail Trail (OVRT) to pass through Almonte? This topic was discussed at the Mississippi Mills Council meeting on Tuesday evening and it seems the answer is ‘Go ahead, we have nothing to say for now’.

The future use of the rail right-of-way that passes through the centre of Almonte has been the subject of numerous letters that have appeared in the Millstone in recent months. In a nutshell, the County purchased the right-of-way to protect it as a future transportation corridor and, in the meantime, to make it a recreational facility. In a series of recent public forums held by the County, it became evident that the County of Lanark plans to designate the right-of-way as a multi-use trail, meaning snowmobiles, ATVs and other motorized vehicles could use the trail. While the County has the authority to do what it wants, our municipal council can influence the decision by making its views know to the County regarding the type of uses it wants to see on the trail as it passes through Mississippi Mills and particularly as it passes through Almonte.

There are strongly held views on either side of the debate and hundreds of emails have been received by councillors at the municipal and county levels. Snowmobilers want to make it a Class ‘A’ trail with more than 250 snowmobiles expected to pass through Almonte each day on weekends. Many residents of Almonte are worried about our town becoming a noisier, dirtier and more dangerous place to live. Proponents of a motor-free trail within Mississippi Mills point to the enormous economic and social benefits that the trail would have for the area if dedicated for use by cyclists and skiers as well as hikers and walkers of all ages.

For Tuesday night’s meeting, a proposal on how to develop a position was prepared for the Mississippi Mills Council by Councillors Edwards and McCubbin. It consisted of 2 parts: First, it described a process of public consultation to develop a proposed position. This would include striking a task force of people with different perspectives from Mississippi Mills to prepare a draft report which would then form the basis for discussion at a larger public forum in early June. The 3 councillors on the task force would then present their recommendations to the full council for a final decision before the end of June. The Mississippi Mills Council approved this recommendation on Tuesday evening and the task force is now being formed.

The second recommendation from Councillors Edwards and McCubbin was to adopt an interim position based on the City of Ottawa’s Rural Pathways Shared-Use Policy, namely, snowmobiles would be the only motorized vehicles permitted on the rural portion of the rail trail in winter and that ONLY non-motorized uses would be allowed in urban Almonte.

Staff at Lanark County are currently developing a management plan for the OVRT and the two councillors saw an urgency to have input from Mississippi Mills reflected in that plan. If Mississippi Mills remains silent, the County will likely allow all motorized uses. Adding restrictions later would become more difficult. If restrictions were recommended by Mississippi Mills, then the County might agree to a compromise while a final position is being prepared by Mississippi Mills.

This second recommendation was defeated in a tie vote.  The recorded vote found support from Councillors Lowry, Torrance, McLaughlin, Pulker-Monk and McCubbin and rejection from Councillors Ferguson, Watters, Wilkinson, Gillis and Abbott. (Councillor Edwards was absent.)

The supporters of a motor-free trail who attended Tuesday’s meeting were very disappointed by this outcome. They are concerned that the County will now have a freer-hand to move forward with their plans for motorized use of the OVRT. In fact, the County’s CAO Kurt Greaves will be bringing forward a proposed management plan that will almost certainly allow all forms of motorized vehicles on the rail trail.

What is at stake for residents of Mississippi Mills is that the rail bed becomes a motorized thruway and not a recreational trail. As new information becomes available in the coming weeks, the Mississippi Mills Council can reconsider whether to tell the County what it wants to see happen. It is very important that councillors know the views of their constituents. That requires the residents to speak up. To send an email to the Mississippi Mills councillors, use clerk@Mississippimills.ca and ask that it be sent to all councillors.

For more information, visit www.rail-trail.ca