ELIZABETH, NJ — The show of support for mountain bike trails — and those who oppose them — is gearing up again less than a year after the freeholder board opposed a plan to allow the cyclists in Watchung Reservation.
Far fewer advocates from both sides attended the March 8 freeholders meeting than last year. In May, over a hundred people interested in the issue attended a meeting where the freeholder board voted 5-3 with one abstention to disapprove of the bike trails.
Bruce Bergen, who was freeholder chairman last year, said at the May 18 meeting he wasn’t categorically opposed to mountain biking. Mountain biking is currently prohibited in county parks, but it was formerly allowed up until the mid-1990s.
“I have only decided that I oppose allowing it in the Watchung Reservation, even on a reduced basis,” he said at the time. “I certainly am not opposed to considering the possibility of other locations for the sport within the county park system or to further look at this issue in the future.”
Bergen, at the time, sided with those who opposed bike trails, including environmental conservationists concerned with damaging the Watchung Reservation, a 2,100-acre park surrounded by Scotch Plains, Summit, Berkeley Heights, Mountainside and Springfield.
Jamie Meiselman, co-chair of the Union County chapter of Jersey Off Road Biking Association, spoke at a March 8 meeting to hold Bergen and other freeholders who said they wanted revisit the issue true to their word.
Meiselman explained he’s been trying to talk to freeholders and park officials about finding alternative locations for legal bike trails, like Hidden Valley or Houdaille Quarry in Springfield, “but you’re not returning our calls.”
“This is my biggest frustration,” Meiselman said. “As you know, the mountain bike community does not currently have a working relationship with Union County parks. I fear that if we are not in a dialogue with the county early in the process, we can expect a similar controversial reaction to any public proposal in the future.”
Three opponents of the bike trails attended the March 8 meeting to show their disapproval, while two spoke out in support.
Margaret Southwell, of Fanwood, said she has begun mapping the number of invasive plants in Watchung Reservation and is already finding a large amount.
“The point I’d like to make here is: a forest that is in such dire ecological decline cannot withstand the outright destruction of new bike trails of undeveloped forest,” Southwell said. “…Please, please do not destroy Watchung Reservation any more than it is by adding bike trails to it.”
Matthew Schwebeo, of Cranford, came out in support of the trails, adding that Union County is one of the only counties in the state that prohibits mountain biking. Parks in other counties allow mountain biking, like Lewis Morris Park in Morris County.
“An outright prohibition of it just isn’t going to work,” he said at the meeting. “It just creates a lot of anger by people riding because they’re not supposed to because there’s no where they’re able to ride. It’s kind of (like) the whole skateboarding dilema.”
In February 2016, the freeholders approved and adopted the Watchung Reservation Master Plan, which was prepared by CME Associates. The plan first provided for 7.46 miles of dual-use trails for both hikers and mountain bikers, Bergen explained at the May 2017 meeting.
Bergen explained that an alternative plan was requested by the freeholders and that JORBA asked for about 13 miles of biking-only trails while CME drafted a new design.
The plan did not entail a study of the environmental impact the biking trails would have on the heavily wooded park. Freeholder Mohamed Jalloh, who abstained from the May 2017 vote, previously said he would want to see an official study, while Bergen was convinced by conservationists that mountain biking would damage the park.
Bergen said at the meeting that his opinion hasn’t changed “at all” since 2017.
“I have since then continued to look other locations might be amenable to that sport. I have not found any that I find would be any less damaged by the sport, any less problematic,” he said at the March 8 meeting, adding that’s why the mountain biking community hasn’t heard back from him.
The freeholders who voted in 2017 against changing the Watchung Reservation Trails Master Plan to allow mountain biking were Linda Carter, Bette Kowalski, Vernell Wright, Sergio Granados and Bergen.
Those who voted to allow the trails were Angel Estrada, Christopher Hudak and Alexander Mirabella.