Summit Mayor Radest 'Questions Process' as Union County Freeholders Vote Against Mountain Biking Trails in Watchung Reservation

Summit's Mayor Nora Radest asks the Board for a compromise to be reached following an engineering study and environmental impact study. Credits: Leah Scalzadonna
The board amended a previous resolution approving the Watchung Reservation Master Plan to reflect the board's disapproval of recommending and providing for mountain biking in the Watchung Reservation. Credits: Leah Scalzadonna

ELIZABETH, NJ – After Summit Mayor Nora Radest took to the podium to "question this process" that led to their pending resolution, the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders voted not to approve mountain biking trails proposed in the Watchung Reservation Master Plan at Thursday night’s meeting. The passing of Resolution 2017-412 effectively put an end to a months-long debate by county residents about the merits and hazards of creating mountain biking trails in the Watchung Reservation.

Forty-six people spoke before the Board in an attempt to persuade a freeholder’s vote, with 22 people speaking in favor of mountain biking and 24 people speaking against it. In compliance with fire safety codes, a 125-person limit was in place for the meeting. As people left the meeting, those waiting in the lobby came in to take their place.

“I don’t want anyone to think that we take what you say lightly,” Freeholder Linda Carter said. “We hear what you’re saying and we have to take a look at the total. Sometimes, in order to have a win-win, you have to take a step back.”

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Those in favor of mountain biking trails frequently argued that the trails would have a minimal impact, would allow schools to create mountain biking teams and would bring in more county residents to the reservation, among other reasons. Those opposed often questioned how the trails would impact the environment, worried about the proposed trails’ proximity to their homes and the dangers of mountain biking, among other reasons.

The vote passed 5-3, with Freeholders Wright, Granados, Bergen, Kowalski and Carter voting “yes.” Freeholders Hudak, Estrada and Mirabella voted “no” and Freeholder Jalloh abstaining.

Before the vote, Chairman Bruce H. Bergen gave an impassioned speech explaining his vote, stating that he believed the addition of mountain bike trails would harm the environment, the reservation itself and the county.

“We as a County are not doing enough to maintain the trails that already exist,” Bergen said. “For now, we must concentrate on maintenance, repair and, as appropriate, re-commissioning current trails. I disagree with the statement that the Watchung Reservation is under-utilized. I believe just the opposite.”

Fellow freeholders agreed that the reservation needs more maintenance and that an environmental impact study must be done before expanding trails inside the reservation. Freeholder Granados said that the current vote does not mean mountain biking cannot be put back on the agenda or that a compromise cannot be reached in the future.

The vote was met with jubilation by some, who cheered and congratulated one another and the Board. Those who were in favor of mountain biking in the Watchung Reservation left quietly.

“You can’t be upset the teacher didn’t give you an ‘A’ because you didn’t do the book report yet,” Scotch Plains resident Eric Larnick said, using the analogy to explain why he believes the trails cannot be built without an environmental impact study being done beforehand. “The reservation is Union County’s last standing nature preserve. We have to put the work in.”

Radest and Mayor Paul Mirabelli of Mountainside also spoke before the Board, asking for a compromise to be reached between the differentiating parties.

The entirety of Radest's remarks reflected:

"Good evening.  I am Nora Radest, Mayor of Summit, NJ

I am here this evening to comment on the bike trails portion of the Master Plan for the Watchung Reservation.

Over the past several months, City Engineer Aaron Schrager and I have spoken with many of those in attendance tonight.  Our county freeholders, Summit residents and business owners, avid mountain bikers and people who live near and/or use and enjoy the reservation for many different pursuits.

The Master Plan for trails in the Watchung Reservation was completed in February 2016; within the 2142 acres of the reservation, currently there are 26 miles of bridle trails and 19 miles of hiking trails. I would like to quote from the executive summary. “The goal of the Trails Master Plan is to improve the user experience and identify opportunities to ensure a safe and easy-to-navigate trail system. This Plan’s intent it so provide baseline information on the current trail system, recommend new policies for managing trails, establish a process for assessing requests to improve unrecognized trails, and prioritize future capital improvement projects. It will also act as an environmental resource inventory to identify the natural habitats and conditions found on the Reservation. Furthermore, the Plan describes the need for information gathering as well as additional staff and volunteers to adequately fund, maintain and police the system as it improves.”

At the last meeting, the audience was told that an engineering study to determine the best location for, and application of, trails for biking and walking would be completed.  I am very disappointed to learn that the study was not undertaken. That should have been part of the process for assessing requests to improve unrecognized trails.

As you know residents of Summit and other communities abutting the reservation have strong concerns about the proximity of trails to their homes. After discussions with representatives of the mountain bikers it was clear that they were willing to accept modifications that would bar trails from close proximity to such residential areas. While the steep slope location north of Rt. 78 should not be considered, other areas in the Watchung Reservation could possibly accommodate mountain biking trails. I encourage you to consider that option not only in Summit, but in all the towns surrounding the reservation. Additionally, concerns have been raised by environmentalists; flyers have been circulated, allegations made, but I do not believe an Environmental Impact Study has been done.

The resolution you are voting on tonight does not contain a plan for ANY trails for mountain biking. I question this process. Were there any attempts to get representatives of the interested parties together to discuss a compromise? The Master Plan specifically envisions the need for information gathering. How can you vote on this tonight without proper expert research and opinion? Surely, with thoughtful discussion, a thorough engineering report and an environmental impact study, a compromise among all these important constituencies is possible."

The Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders will hold an agenda setting session and a regular meeting on May 25 at 7 p.m.

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