MOUNTAINSIDE, NJ - The County of Union held a public meeting for input on its Trails Master Plan, which will create new trails and open Watchung Reservation to 13.5 miles for mountain bikers.
The three-hour meeting attracted around 300 people from both sides of the conversation, but it was hikers, runners, wildlife enthusiasts, and neighboring home owners who mostly expressed their concerns because mountain bikers had done so at a meeting held in late 2016.
Currently, biking is not allowed in Watchung Reservation.
The crowd was instructed to keep their comments to three minutes, and was informed that the meeting was being recorded. Additionally, there were Union County police on hand.
Charles Weltner of Plainfield came to the microphone, and noted that when the Master Plan was first conceived by Consulting & Municipal Engineers, or CME, mountain biking trails were only to be at one end of reservation, with the eastern end left untouched. In December, the plan was amended. The new trails are biker only trails that will extend over thirteen miles.
Yet, as Weltner stated, the engineering firm only interviewed mountain bikers for their input. They did not interview adjacent land owners, hikers, trail stewards, nature students, environmentalists or birders.
He questioned what effect the plan will have on wildlife and threatened species. And at that point, he hoisted a blow-up he had prepared with the proposed new bike trails superimposed over wildlife ones, highlighting threatened habitats.
Other topics Weltner raised included asking what number of bikes the county should expect to utilize the park, and how they would be policed, items echoed by others who spoke.
Bill Nierstadt of Garwood, who is also Plainfield's Director of the Planning Division, noted:
- Union County is the third densest county in New Jersey, and the fifteenth in the United States.
- The reservation is managed for the preservation of its natural resources.
- The two wildlife crossings were required as part of Rt 78's construction, neither of which were meant to be mountain bike crossings.
- His concern about maintenance costs.
After a bit of a ruckus, Union County Freeholder Chairman Bruce Bergen took to the stage and addressed the crowd, apologizing that people didn't know about this meeting with enough advance notice. He announced that comments can be made on the county's website. He took no questions, and left.
Other speakers included Evan Michelson of "Oddities," the East Village shop which trades in antiques and other rarities. She said Watchung Reserve is a place for peace, a place to escape.
Jennifer, a Summit resident, spoke to her city officials after she found out about the meeting, and they knew nothing of it.
Chris Rinaldi of Berkeley Heights quoted the Freeholders website, "...the nearly 2,200-acre Watchung Reservation, the crown jewel of the Parks system..."
Barbara Krause of Cranford wanted to know if the Department of Environmental Protection has been notified, and asked how Routes 22 and 78 will be impacted. She stressed that the public land project that was planned out by the Olmsteads was a reservation, not a park.
Robert Muska of Berkeley Heights stated that the last time mountain bikers were allowed in the reservation it ended in failure for two reasons - no enforcement, and lack of maintenance. He questioned why it would be different this time.
There were similar themes that ran through the night - lack of communication by the County of Union, impact on homeowners who live near the park, including property taxes and bikers who would be traveling so close to their property lines, erosion of trails and effects on wildlife and trees.
The County Manager and the Freeholders will act as a team in next steps.
The next Freeholders meeting is on Thursday, March 9th at 7:00 pm. It will be held in the Freeholders’ Meeting Room, Administration Building, 10 Elizabethtown Plaza, 6th Floor, Elizabeth. The public is invited to attend.