Proposed bike trails in Watchung Reservation nixed

UNION COUNTY, NJ — “The good guys won.”
That was the takeaway for Leonard Berkowitz of Berkeley Heights at the conclusion of the May 18 Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting.

Berkowitz and many other residents attended their first freeholders meeting that night to speak about a subject that has evoked strong opinions in recent weeks: the proposed 13.5 miles of mountain bike trails within Watchung Reservation.

The freeholders voted to remove the plan after a 5-3-0 vote. Chair Bruce Bergen and Freeholders Bette Jane Kowalski, Sergio Granados and Vernell Wright
voted against the proposal.

“I am absolutely certain that this is not a prudent thing to do,” Bergen said in a long statement defending his position on the proposed mountain bike trails. “The trails are too intensely used and too valuable. The bike trails would exacerbate existing problems. We should concentrate on maintenance and damage repair. I disagree that the existing trails are underutilized and I believe that mountain biking would do environmental damage.”

Freeholders Angel Estrada, Christopher Hudak and Alexander Mirabella voted against dropping the trail from the master plan. Hudak claimed that the resolution attempted to foreclose compromise and that it only included deleted sections of a plan that was adopted last year. Estrada said there was a need to “share the green space” but also admitted that more work, such as an environmental impact study, would have to be done. Citing the lack of independent studies, Freeholder Mohamed Jalloh abstained from the vote.

The freeholders voted after listening to more than two hours of comments from residents, who were nearly evenly split on the issue. A retired surgeon living in Scotch Plains spoke about the injuries he’s seen as a result of mountain biking.

A personal injury attorney who also spoke cited examples of cases involving mountain biking injuries, most of which she said left people as quadriplegics.

Members of environmental groups such as Friends of the Rahway River Parkway also spoke about the original intent to preserve the land. Proponents of the plan included representatives of the Jersey Off Road Bicycling Association, who said concerns about safety were unjustified and that other counties in the state have trails that are shared by bikers and hikers.

But Summit Mayor Nora Radest and Mountainside Mayor Paul Mirabelli spoke against the addition of the new trails, with Radest questioning how the freeholders could vote on the matter without the advice of experts, or an environmental study to determine the effect on natural habitats.

entifying appropriate areas for the trails remained incomplete. Mirabelli agreed that “the current plan isn’t in the best interest of Mountainside or the reservation.”

Summit Councilman Mike McTernan said that the proposal “cries for compromise,” but it seemed to him that the resolution was “winner takes all.” McTernan suggested that the issue be reopened once the appropriate studies are complete.