January 25, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Gating Off Ezra’s Tunnel Was Necessary

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In November, Amanda Green’s sister, Nicole Miller, and Kornowski filed notices of claim against New York State and its Department of Environmental Conservation, the first step in a lawsuit. The claims accuse the state and DEC of negligence for failing to maintain the property in a reasonably safe condition, warn of danger, “adequately demarcate and/or restrict access to dangerous and prohibited areas of the property, adequately marking areas safe for hiking and warning the public to hazardous conditions in the forest.”

“There are marked hiking trails,” he said. “If you do that, you create a duty that has to be maintained.”

From The Buffalo News, Dec. 10, 2017, reporting on the deaths of two people who fell off a 100-foot cliff at Zoar Valley, owned by New York State.

There was much said and written about the recent decision whether the City should accept Cornell’s offer to close Ezra’s Tunnel. An editorial in a local publication, and many who spoke before the Common Council, chose to disregard many aspects that were necessary when the Council made its decision. I would like to highlight some of the issues ignored by those who feel it’s simply a matter of risk or whether they have the right to do as they please on property they don’t own.

Unfortunately in our society it’s not enough to put up a sign and expect people will adhere to the rules or advice as posted. The result is often an expensive lawsuit against the property owner when someone is injured or killed. Granted, Ithaca has not even done the minimum in warning the public of hazards surrounding Ezra’s Tunnel, but that is one indication resources are too limited to do what would be required to allow access. The city can neither afford to upgrade the area, nor to fight or settle lawsuits brought against it without affecting other areas of the budget, and those of us paying taxes should not be expected to lose services because too much of a tight budget goes to lawsuits. When the mayor appeared on national television and was asked what is the biggest challenge in running our city, he responded, “potholes.” His answer was not gorge access.

Regardless of one’s opinion whether or not Ezra’s Tunnel and the gorge are safe enough as is, there is no way the City can leave the approach to the tunnel in its current condition and allow access. If this were a state park it would be closed off, with fines levied for trespassing by park police who would monitor the area, as is the case at Taughannock Falls (where visitors can’t climb down to the gorge above the falls). The state parks spend a large proportion of their budget for infrastructure such as stairs and railings to allow access to spots like Ezra’s Tunnel, areas that are often gated off and closed in winter. To offset those costs they charge a fee to enter.

An editorial published by the Ithaca Voice cited statistics to show the risks of visiting this area have been exaggerated. Making a similar analogy, I would say the drivers I witness going past the elementary school in my neighborhood driving 40 mph don’t pose a risk to students or themselves as there has never been a crash there involving a fatality or serious injury. Should we accept the notion those drivers know what they are doing and therefore allow them to continue without some enforcement by the police? If you think that’s a poor analogy based on who’s at risk in the different situations, please see this story also from the Ithaca Voice.

In calling for the tunnel to remain open with oversight by local law enforcement, people like to assume the police will be available and address problems when they inevitably arise. The neighbors who have called police to report fireworks being set off, bottles smashed, people spray painting the area or engaged in risky behavior when the police department is short-staffed or at night tell a different story. Yes, emergencies will be addressed, as was the case when the city spent over $35,000 to rescue two teens from a ledge near Ezra’s Tunnel. Unlike other states, New York does not have laws to recoup those expenses when people are found to be negligent. New York does have strict laws about where swimming is allowed which the city must adhere to and enforce.

Many Cornell students, past and present, claim access to this spot provides their relief from the stress of academic life. Absent the trash and graffiti, it does the same for me. As I said to Common Council, I wish I could continue to go there as well. But there are dozens of spots to relax in the gorges in Ithaca, certainly more than other Ivy League towns. Unfortunately, many people calling for the tunnel to remain open are motivated not just by the spectacular nature of the surroundings but by a desire to go to a spot where there is little-to-no oversight and one can do as they please without repercussions. Isn’t that what Second Dam is for?

If you want more input on what happens and doesn’t happen in Ithaca’s natural areas, two of the new commissions will give you a voice,:the Public Safety and Information Commission and Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Commission. Applications can be found on the City’s website.

Joe McMahon chaired the City of Ithaca’s recently defunct Natural Areas Commission. Comments can be sent to [email protected].