Kids seeking the thrill of skittering down a frozen hill on a toboggan or flexible flyer have few choices if they live in the city-adjacent community of Westvale. The most obvious and popular location for generations has been the Westcott Reservoir, a massive mound across West Genesee Street from Westvale Plaza.
But in the aftermath of an accident on Jan. 10, 2009, that resulted in the death of a 12-year-old girl after she slid into a car parked at the bottom of the hill, the city, which owns the property, tightened longstanding restrictions that prohibited sledding on that site. Barriers were erected and patrols increased. Some neighbors defied the ban, while others complained about the policy in letters to the editor.
This winter, the orange plastic fence has returned to the reservoir’s west side, near Orchard Road, the site of the fatal accident, as well as on the less-used east side. But there’s a sizable gap in the fencing that leaves the north face, overlooking West Genesee Street, open and local thrill-seekers have taken advantage of the opening. In the days after January snows coated the area, the hillside was streaked with tracks left by the daredevils who made the arduous climb up the daunting slope, spurred on by the promise of a rapid, bone-rattling dissent, snow spraying their faces as they careened down the hill.
Dan Rice, who lives about a block from the reservoir, took his daughter and son sledding there when they were children and he’s satisfied with the current status at the reservoir. “I don’t know if this is their new strategy, but I kind of like what they’re doing now,” Rice said. “What they seem to have done is they fenced it in so you can’t go on the Orchard side. I’m not sure if that’s why they did it, but I think it’s impossible to go into West Genesee Street because of that huge gully they’ve got there. That’s the safer way of doing it. The problem was if you didn’t stop on the side near Orchard, you wound up going in the road.”
Despite appearances, the city maintains the sledding ban posted on signs on the property. “It is prohibited,” insisted Parks Department Commissioner Pat Driscoll. “The question becomes if we can go out and enforce it. That’s what it comes down to, in all honesty. The only thing that we can tell the public is it is at their own risk and we’re going to encourage people to sled safely. If some of our younger sledders are going to go out, their parents should be sure that they’re properly equipped with a safe sled and in some cases maybe a helmet. And then we would urge caution when sledding on our reservoir, because it is at your own risk.”
Ignoring the policy is more tempting for those living in or near the city as no city park allows sledding, regardless of the site. “It’s all the same ordinance,” Driscoll pointed out. “People still sled, though. To be honest there’s some great hills, but again, that’s something we can’t open ourselves up to.”
Enforcement of the no-sledding rule is complicated by the fact that the reservoir, although owned by the city of Syracuse, is actually located within the town of Geddes. But there have been attempts to restrict the area. “I was chased out of there last year by the city police,” Rice said with a laugh. “I was cross-country skiing through there and they told me to get out. It was right after the accident and they didn’t want anybody on there, period. But this year people have been sledding there.”
Meanwhile the city continues to rebuild the water tank. The $40 million project is covering the higher portion of the parcel, topographically speaking, which is on the other side from the area that’s popular with winter athletes.
While the fencing is unsightly as well as ineffective, city officials concede they can’t keep people from sledding at the res, but neither can they lift the ban without exposing Syracuse taxpayers to litigation or costly settlements in the event of further injuries. “I think their liability is such that they can’t say go ahead and sled,” conceded Rice, an attorney. “I’m all right with it the way it is, but they’re going to say it’s not allowed, but it’ll go on.”
In fact, outings to the reservoir may be planned in Rice’s home, as his college student son Brian still enjoys hitting the slope. “I haven’t gone recently,” Brian Rice noted. “But I may in the next week or so with my friends. Last year it was completely roped off, but I went the year before. We were taught to bail out. If you’re going to hit something, you jump out and land in the snow.”