ELIZABETH, NJ - The Union County Freeholders regular meeting on March 23rd attracted a large crowd who were there to comment on the county’s plan to allow mountain bikes in Watchung Reservation.
Chairman Bruce Bergen gave a short statement before allowing anyone to speak, indicating that in February 2016, the board had adopted a Trails Master Plan to bring up to seven miles of dual use trails to the reservation. After review, the dual use trail option was discarded, and in December 2016 a revised map had been created but not adopted.
Bergen stressed that before going forward with any plans, in the interest of transparency, there would be a vote by the Freeholders, in public, for all to see.
Tom Gokhale, a CPA who lives in Westfield, spoke first in public comment about Jersey Off Road Bicycle Association, or JORBA, a 501(c)(3) that carries insurance. Its mission, according to the website, is to “build and maintain sustainable multi-use trails, organize and encourage volunteerism and responsibility, and advocate and foster mountain biking as a healthy, environmentally sound, and sustainable activity.”
Holly Hoffman of Plainfield spoke next. She is a former Director at the Trailside Center at Watchung Reservation, and her concerns centered on a biker who went over a ledge near the Deserted Village and had to be airlifted to a hospital, as well as the disruption to invasive seeds, nesting birds and young mammals from bike use.
William Toth, a member of Plainfield’s Planning Board for over fifteen years, ticked off a list of mountain bike accidents, and noted that the county, and ultimately taxpayers, could be responsible for damages. As he went to sit, you could hear someone speak loudly, “That’s fear mongering!”
Charles Weltner, of Plainfield, spoke to information he received through his OPRA request.
Nancy Piwowar, also of Plainfield and the President of the Drake House Museum, stated, “I’m here to advocate for the reservation.”
Summit’s Paul Starker posed three questions to the Freeholders:
- Have first responders who will be responsible been told?
- How will they navigate the difficult terrain?
- Do they have the equipment and resources to perform rescues safely?
Andrew Stillufsen of Westfield then countered, asking why there would be high school mountain biking leagues if the sport was so unsafe. And Eric Mober of Summit pointed out that trails would not be much wider than a set of handlebars.
Jamie Meiselman, co-leader of the Union County Chapter of the Jersey Off Road Bicycle Association (JORBA) spoke, but as he hit his time limit, he had to hand his speech to Bob Miller of Cranford to finish.
Thomas Dunn, also of Cranford, who openly admitted he has a vested interest in seeing this pass, cited sales statistics from Hilltop Bicycles, his store in Summit. He said that fifty-six percent of his store’s sales are from mountain bikes, and of those purchases, three in four are for children ages 6 to 17.
Dunn stressed that the trails in question would not be destination trails to which people would flock, and that usage, usually around an hour and a half ride, would be spread across day parts.
Freeholder Christopher Hudak, up for re-election this November, reiterated that all sides agree the trails need better maintenance, and that this should be incorporated into the Master Plan. However, stating that “change is important” for the park system in order for it to remain vibrant, he noted the 2,200 acres could be shared.
Many residents of Plainfield were in attendance, including Plainfield Mayor Adrian Mapp’s re-election campaign manager, Jim Spear, who reached out to TAPintoPlainfield via email after the meeting.
“I must say, Freeholder Hudak’s statements at the end of the Freeholder meeting disheartened me. He continually referred to the Reservation as a Park. As if it was a baseball park or an amusement park, and not the reservation preserve as its founders intended," Spear said. "He justified his position in favor of the mountain biking by saying that the opponents of it are ‘scared of change’. He pretty much indicated they would get over it."
“What Freeholder Hudak fails to recognize is that his predecessors, who were also dedicated public servants like himself, had the vision to preserve this delicate forest for generations to come," Spear. "They created other public parks for the kind of intense usage that he defends. During his time as our elected official he is a steward of this land and it is his responsibility to protect it."
“In 1995 the Parks department and the Freeholder Board stopped the trial period for mountain biking in the reservation after it was determined that the activity was doing irreversible harm. Mr. Hudak does a disservice to his constituents, many of whom are in Plainfield and are against this proposal, when he discredits these findings by his predecessors. His argument is that the ‘technology has changed’. That left me bewildered as the technology of the forest certainly has not changed, and the improvements to mountain bikes has only led to more destruction of the land with faster bikes and wider tires.
“I plan to extend an invitation to Mr. Hudak to come join some of his constituents for a walk in the reservation so he can get a true feeling of what really is at stake.”