ELIZABETH, NJ - Conflict between supporters and opponents of mountain bike trails at the Watchung Reservation continued Thursday, at the regular meeting of the Union County Freeholders.
More than a dozen people spoke about the Watchung Reservation Trails Master Plan during the Public Comment portion of the meeting, which came just two days after about 300 people packed a room at a public meeting on the proposal to add 13.5 miles of new trails to the plan.
The commentary from opponents of adding bike trails was similar to that made at Tuesday night's meeting: lack of communication by the County of Union; impact on homeowners who live near the park, including concerns of property values and bikers traveling close to their property lines; and erosion of trails and effects on wildlife and trees.
Supporters presented themselves as a Union County user group that deserves access to the area and disputed the claims against mountain bikers made by opponents of the plan.
Chairman Bruce Bergen kicked off the discussion emphasizing that adding bike trails at Watchung Reservation "is just a proposal."
Contrary to the criticism regarding public notice to the process, Bergen said that the County has made proper efforts to get the word out. "We certainly want to hear public comments from both sides of the issue," said Bergen. "Tonight is not a question and answer session. We are taking comments from the public but will not have a back and forth."
Mary Housel from New Providence, an "ultra runner" with extensive knowledge of the trails, is disturbed at the current state of the trails. "Park staff has not done a good job maintaining the parks," said Housel, adding that she believes there has been a lack of involvement of the walkers, runners other users of the park, including the employees of the reservations. "There’s a lack of respect for nature and the environment," she said, noting that with no environmental study and without contacting the EPA, implementation of the bike trail could be detrimental. "It is a reservation not a park," she said.
Charles Weltner of Plainfield came to the microphone and provided his summary of "how this has gone down," stating the Watchung Reservation Master Plan was approved in February of 2016, and then subsequently a special public meeting was held in October of 2016 with the biking community which resulted in changes to the proposed trail paths in December of 2016. Weltner added, that when the Master Plan was first conceived by Consulting & Municipal Engineers (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 bike-only trails that will extend over 13 miles, including new trails in an unused portion along the perimeter of the 2,000-acre green space.
He provided the clerk with copies of a map he prepared from the Master Plan with a list of endangered habitats with an overlay to show how the trails will disturb the endangered habitats.
"I am asking for you to go back to the beginning and start over," said Weltner. "Reach out to the community. It is your obligation as the stewards and [as] representatives of the people of Union County is to find out from the people what we want."
Bill Toth said he had heard that trail construction has already begun, so he went over to the area that was referenced and saw it to be true. "Trails are being cleared and marked," said Toth. "There is a visible trail that has been started. I’m disturbed to hear that this is said to be a proposal and here it is being cut." He added, "As stewards we need to take this seriously to preserve for generations."
Bergen responded to Toth's comment by saying, "That is not the case. I have seen the pictures, and yes, there have been flags placed. There has been no clearing of the trails. --- Any clearing that was done had nothing to do with clearing trails."
An unidentified man sitting in the back yelled "that is a lie." Bergen asked an officer to escort the man out for not following the meeting rules and lack of decorum.
More people then spoke out against the plan, expressing their concern about bikers not observing the rules, signage and an influx of traffic, and impact to local authorities.
Ann DeCamp of Mountainside would like to know "what recourse will we have as hikers?"
Karen, an architect from Summit, wants to know when the public, besides the biking community, will have the opportunity for a back and forth collaborative session.
Matt, a resident from Summit, said it is not just a hiker versus biker issue. "It is a county resident versus non-resident issue, an enforcement issue. Is there going to be a handful of gates?" He said, "[There has been] no plausible study that shows a realistic estimate of the surrounding region usage. It’s a reservation not a park. I find it to be a safety issue."
He went on to ask, "[The] misinformation going around -- it's very apparent that you all are finding it hard to manage your own process. There should not be any flags marking the prospective trails ... [The] most interesting important misinformation is about the setbacks ... Now what are the intentions," Matt asked.
A Mountainside resident asked the freeholders to take into consideration the homeowners that live directly adjacent to the Watchung Reservation. "We need to have an understanding of where the trails will be placed in conjunction to where the back of our homes are," said the resident. "There is not a lot of accurate information as to where the trails are going to be placed."
Andrew Stevenson of Summit commented on the proposed new trails north of 78. "This is very steep and densely wooded. It will be dangerous and will be close to the homeowners. This trail and the bikers will be right in our backyards and increase the traffic on our streets. To my knowledge there is not a single parking lot for the section north of 78." He urged the Freeholders not to allow the trails on this sliver of property.
Marybeth Garry of Springfield displayed a photo board showing flags marking "two big last-standing trees," various areas that are not being maintained, infrastructure falling apart, and graffiti. She said she represents the animals and feels the reservation is under attack. Her concern is that "whoever marked this out doesn’t know anything about the laws of this state, wildlife, nature and where you put a trail." She strongly urged the Freeholders to "put the trails next to the other trails. Do not take virgin land."
Bergen confirmed, "There is a process whereby once it [engineering report] is a finalized public document, it will be available to the public and I will presume that we will post on our website at that time."
Thomas Dunn of Cranford, proprietor of Hilltop Bicycles -- which has locations in Summit, Madison and Cranford -- and a supporter of the bike trail proposal, said in a recent Letter to the Editor, "We are all stakeholders who care for and enjoy access to the outdoors. We value the environment and want our children and grandchildren to enjoy outdoor play. Through working together over the past year, listening to the input of opponents and proponents, the plan has moved from shared trail access to a separate trail system for children and families to ride their bicycles off-road. This plan is a fair plan."
Jamie Meiselman, co-leader of the Union County Chapter of the Jersey Off Road Bicycle Association (JORBA.org) read a Letter to the Editor that he recently submitted to many TAPinto.net sites, "Bridging the Knowledge Gap on the Watchung Reservation Mountain Bike Plan."
Meiselman passed the microphone to fellow JORBA member Joe Weiss, of Westfield, who rebutted the claims made against mountain bikers. "None of the horrible things that you are hearing about ever happens. There were no injuries, no families getting run over, no parking issues -- everyone got to share the reservation. Please consider real facts when you make the plans for the reservation in the future."
Andrew Stillufsen of Westfield, who has been in front of the freeholders in the past, commended the freeholders for their transparency and reminded people that the Trails Master Plan had put forth a shared trail option but , in response to feedback from stakeholders about safety and usage concerns of misconceptions 20 years ago, "The county revised the plan to put mountain bikers on their own trails," he said. It's about "Access. Now the opponents of mountain bikers are saying 'no mountain bikers in the reservation,'" because "mountain biking trails would ruin the reservation. This can’t be further from the truth. Mountain bikers are responsible trail users. This has been proven all over the state, and in fact all over the country. Shared trails with hikers and equestrians are successful. There is little to no user conflict. I understand the concerns -- you don’t want to get run over – To my knowledge, conflict is minimal if never happens."
Stillufsen called the reservation a "great resource for Union County. – The notion that myself or any other mountain bikers would want to go there to do something to harm the reservation or adversely affect it is untrue." He asked for equal access as a Union County user-group. "I want to continue to encourage the County and urge the Freeholders to approve the Trails Master Plan at Watchung to include mountain biking access."
Glen Johnson concluded, "Democracy is not a spectator sport – folks that are here tonight feel blindsided – frankly they haven’t been paying attention."
After listening to everyone speak, Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski told the public that "we are going to think very carefully before proceeding any further on this and please stay in touch and don't be discouraged."
Freeholder Angel Estrada explained, "The process will take time. I can assure you that this decision is not made – we will study, we will look into it and service our residents’ needs. I appreciate you coming out. That is part of the exchange that needs to take place."