ITHACA, NY – On Wednesday, the City of Ithaca moved toward banning people from the waters in its natural areas — which is a bit odd, since such a ban already technically exists.
So what is the purpose of the proposed change in legislation? According to City Clerk Julie Holcomb, who proposed the change, it’s mainly about two things: consistency, and enforcement.
During Wednesday’s City Administration Committee meeting, it was clear that none of the alderpersons really wanted to be attached to any sort of ban on swimming. The resolution struggled to get a second, but was eventually seconded just so the issue could be discussed.
“I feel like I’ve become public enemy number one in the last 24 hours,” said Holcomb.
The change is ostensibly aimed at the issue of people cliff jumping and otherwise doing dangerous or disruptive activities at Six Mile Creek. The primary problem, as Holcomb explained, is that the current language of the city’s code has not been successful in enforcing tickets given to the relatively few people who are actually causing enough trouble to be ticketed.
What happens is that the city’s Gorge Rangers, who are the primary “enforcers” of gorge safety, have no enforcement power. Most people cooperate with the rangers when asked to leave an area or stop a dangerous or disruptive action, according to Holcomb.
For those that don’t, however, law enforcement must be called. The gorges are remote and take time for officers to arrive on scene. If people do stick around to get ticketed, the tickets often get thrown out in court on technicalities due to the language, Holcomb explained.
Discretion in enforcement
The wording of the proposed change raised concerns, with some alderpersons feeling that it was too broad.
It would add the following language to the city’s municipal code: “Wading, bathing, floating, jumping, swimming or otherwise entering the water of any natural area located within or owned by the City of Ithaca shall constitute Trespass. Entering the water for fishing purposes is exempt from this provision.”
Holcomb explained that currently, there is a different part of the city code that says: “No person shall bathe in, swim in, or for purposes of swimming and/or bathing enter any of the waters within the City of Ithaca except in those waters officially designated as swimming or bathing waters.”
That law has been on the books since at least the late 1970s, though it was noted that is has been laxly enforced.
Holcomb said the change would add consistency and help improve enforcement by ensuring that people who were ticketed actually had a real consequence, as their tickets wouldn’t be thrown out in court.
Alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff compared it to speed limits: “Every single person who speeds doesn’t end up getting a ticket, but it’s clear that it’s 30 miles per hour here, 55 there,” she said. “If it gets to a point where Gorge Rangers have to call someone in… this will give them the ability to ticket for different things which hopefully then is a deterrent to that worst behavior that we’re seeing. I don’t think this will end up targeting the more normal behavior.”
Has the city already done enough?
Some still felt that the law went too far. Holcomb had pointed out earlier in the meeting that problematic behaviors had been substantially reduced over last years. In previous years, there had been parties of up to 250 people, with substantial alcohol and drug use. The largest party observed this year was 55, and most groups were 10 people or less.
Alderperson George McGonigal suggested that this showed that substantial progress had been made, and the law didn’t need to be expanded further. While he agreed there should be zero tolerance policy on cliff jumping and dangerous activity, he felt that swimming in creeks should be allowed.
“People have been swimming there forever. Since there were people. We live in the Finger Lakes. Unsupervised swimming in the swimming hole is part of our culture. And I don’t see anything wrong with it. I think it’s good,” McGonigal said.
While Holcomb said she understood the sentiment that people are responsible for their own safety, but the fact that city resources had to be used and responders put at risk to rescue people who injured themselves in the gorges also had to be considered.
Alternatives were explored, including expanding the ability of Gorge Rangers to actually ticket people, or expanding the city’s official designated swimming areas. Those efforts would require significantly more effort — City Attorney Ari Lavine referred to the latter as a “regulatory morass.”
Ultimately, the committee voted 4-1 to send the resolution on to Common Council for approval. McGonigal was the dissenting vote.