Proposed bike trails discussed

UNION COUNTY, NJ —

Photo courtesy of Betty Ann Kelly
A map of Watchung Reservation indicates the proposed blue trails for mountain biking, green trails for hiking and
purple trails for equestrian and hiking trails.

During a meeting held Tuesday, March 7, at Trailside Center in Mountainside, the proposed 13.5 miles of bike trails at Watchung Reservation was discussed but no action was taken.

The plan includes new trails throughout the park, and portions of the Sierra Trail and other existing trails to be shared with mountain biking. Some portions of the existing trails will be closed.

The auditorium was standing-room-only when the meeting began with a brief announcement by engineer Megan Stanley. Residents who didn’t have an opportunity to speak were advised to send their comments to info@ucnj.org.

“We want to be as unbiased as possible when it comes to including biking,” Stanley said. “The drafting of the plan began in 2014 and our goal is to review all trails to make sure they’re safe and improved. We looked at other trails in New Jersey and noticed major changes in existing trails. There are erosion problems in the Wetland area and no shared trails, only intersections.”

Residents found it hard to believe that no trees would have to be cut down in order to form the bike trails. In addition to environmental concerns, residents also raised questions about funding, privacy and safety.

“Last time mountain bikes were permitted on the trails, there was erosion, mud puddles and police patrols on the trails were nonexistent,” Robert Muska of Berkeley Heights said at the meeting. “There’s a lack of maintenance and without law enforcement, bikers will be on all the trails.”

Summit officials and residents said they received hardly any notice about the plan.

“The trails will be by my house,” Brian Carpenter of Summit said at the meeting. “I’m not anti-bike, but the plan to turn undeveloped woods into bike trails. The land is undeveloped for a reason. It’s the back of our homes. This plan has gotten little input. We didn’t hear about the plan until a few days ago. I’m concerned about lack of privacy and decreased property value.”

Other residents expressed concerns about hiking and equestrian trails being used for biking.

“My main concern is the bikers won’t stay on their designated trails,” Chris Black of Roselle Park said at the meeting. “I don’t want to see Watchung become a biking trail. I’m also concerned about safety. I was walking my dog when a biker approached us from behind. What’s going to happen when a kid or dog is injured?”

Freeholder Chairman Bruce Bergen is confident that Union County can uphold the rules and regulations and ensure that all laws are enforced.

“I understand that residents are concerned about people disobeying the rules,” Bergen told LocalSource over the phone on March 13. “Just like any other rule, we will enforce it to the best of our ability. Until it happens, we can’t say what the consequence will be, but we will do whatever it takes to enforce the law.”

Other residents disagreed and were in support of the trails at Watchung Reservation. They felt there is a need for more biking trails in Union County.
“I want to see people biking on the trails,” Damian Planco of Mountainside told LocalSource in an interview at the meeting. “We aren’t doing anything like you would on a dirt bike.”

Some people feel we might as well use the land for recreation purposes rather than leaving it undeveloped.

“There should be mountain biking,” Matt Schwartz of Summit told LocalSource in an interview at the meeting. “The land is here for our use. We should be able to use it safely.”

One resident claimed he currently travels almost an hour to go mountain biking from his home in Summit.

“I want to mountain bike in this area and not have to drive 45 minutes to do so,” Ed McDonald of Summit told LocalSource in an interview at the meeting. “It’s a good way to stay fit during the winter.”

However environmentalists expressed concerns about endangered and invasive species as well as erosion.

“This could threaten a lot of endangered species,” Director of the NJ Sierra Club Jeff Tittel told LocalSource over the phone on March 9. “It’s great to have bike trails, but not at the expensive of the environment. Bikes create erosion, especially in steep areas like in Watchung Reservation. It’s the largest piece of open space in Union County but it’s also sensitive because of the environment. They should use existing trails for biking, but someone might also bump into a hiker and so it would need to be done in a responsible way. Bikes would also trample plants and the county should really conduct an environmental impact study to determine that they’re not interfering with any endangered species. Cutting the forest can also open it up to invasive species. We need recreation areas in Union County, but the land needs to be developed while being sensitive to the needs of everyone.”

County Director of Parks and Recreation Ron Zuber stated that an engineer will evaluate environmental concerns prior to moving forward with the master plan.
“An engineer from CME will evaluate all environmental concerns,” Zuber told LocalSource over the phone on March 13. “We will review the report and determine where to go from that point. It’s hard to speculate, but the report is a necessary step if the freeholders are going to move forward and how. The trails will be funded by the Department of Parks and Recreation. No additional funding will be required for this project. It’s part of the budget. This isn’t a bike track, it’s merely a trail. Volunteers will also do a lot of the work, just as it is right now.”

While not all residents will take advantage of the new trails, they will provide some residents the opportunity to bike through Watchung Reservation.

“Like any other use, not everyone will benefit,” Bergen said. “There are residents that will benefit should we go forward. I have no doubt that the trails will be used.”

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