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The truth about the ban on mountain biking at Watchung

According to Union County, mountain biking at Watchung Reservation is forbidden. But until recently no one seems to have gotten to the bottom of why or how. On 7-6-14, the Star-Ledger published an article on the issue in which the county's own spokesman confessed ignorance on the whys and wherefores of the ban. After reading the article I was curious and looked for myself, but after several weeks on the internet and at the library, and even reading the over 200-page county code, I found no actual ban on mountain biking myself.

So I began sending OPRA requests to the county, asking for the actual text of any ban, minutes of the meeting at which it was passed, examples of public input, etc.

I was told that there was no meeting minutes or public input because the whole thing was done in secret by unelected bureaucrats (not the freeholders, who are accountable to voters).

Moreover, there was no actual ban in the law (though "no bikes" was/is as of Fall 2016 county policy). The county took a 1983 ordinance about biking on "roads", "sidewalks" and "paths" and arbitrarily applied it to offroad trails, when it is doubtful those who passed the ordinance intended this, based on the wording therein -- and the fact that in 1983 mountain biking was but in its infancy.

Finally, after sending me stuff written by parks dept. officials, which was basically just someone's hearsay, I demanded proof. On what are these interesting stories based? You say there was trial damage at Watchung -- where's the documentation of it?

On 8-13-14, Union County sent me what, several steps removed, thanks to their inability to answer a simple question, seems to be the answer: What was the decision to arbitrarily, and without public input, exclude mountain biking in 1995 based on? They sent me "various documents" they claim the narrative they supplied was based on -- and that narrative itself was supposedly the answer to "why and how" re: the ban.

So what documentation did they have of problems at Watchung, or other reasons to ban mountain biking there? None. That's right, none. None of the documents provided were about watchung! They relied on a questionable 1995 "South Mountain Land Use Study" of South Mountain in Essex County, news clippings on mountain bike conflict at other parks, not about Watchung (one was in Connecticut.)

The only thing they sent that was about Watchung were three anonymous complaints about unidentified "rude" bikers. You'll note that only the last one, the anonymous complaints, which cannot be documented, because of it's vagueness, is the only one actually about Watchung! But it is also the one that says the least about overall conditions. Even if everything alleged int hose complaints is true, so what, you have several jerks. Penalize them. These complaints might, if valid, be an indication that the rules need to be better enforced, but it is no reason to close the entire park. But of course since it basically says unknown people found unknown people to be rude, according to an unknown person, it is impossible to verify any of it.

Also, if mountain biking was causing such widespread problems in the park, you'd think there would be an excess of evidence. instead, the government -- which at every level, state county and federal, loves paperwork, can find no documentation of ANY trail damage at Watchung, and no documentation of any sort about the overall conditions there. It can't even find verifiable reports of confrontations between mountain bikers, instead producing anonymous complaints alleging "rudeness". What they did produce, again, were a trail study and news articles -- about mountain biking at other parks. Also the South Mountain study is stamped received by Union County Parks Department April 31, 1996, when the county told me the decision to ban us was made in 1995! (So maybe it was not only irrelevant to Watchung, but wasn't in hand yet?)

Below, see the type of "documentation" the government provided when asked why they banned mountain biking:

So the truth about Watchung is that mountain bikers were outlawed because of vague generalities about mountain biking at other parks.

There is absolutely no reason for the ban, and there never has been. For twenty years, the people of Union County have been being ripped off by their government. And that has to stop!

In Feb. of this past year, several mountain bikers, the exec director of Jorba, and myself, met with the county and a consultant they had paid over $40,000 to develop a new trail plan including mountain biking. Sadly, in the months since nothing has materialized. However, it is worth noting that after I filed a follow up OPRA request re: any enforcement of the county's extra-legal prohibition, the signs saying "no bikes" were taken down.

EDIT: As of December 2015, the "no bike" signs are down for the first time in twenty years. I still have not heard from the county (which enticed us to the meeting by promising to work with us!) but I heard through the grapevine that the signs were officially removed. I've been riding and not had any trouble.

UPDATE:Union county claims to work with cyclists for trail access, then reposts "no bike" signs 8-14-16: When the no bike signs came down in Winter of 2015, it was a relief. The extralegal "ban" on mt biking in Watchung Reservation, enacted in a backroom deal by unelected gov't employees in 1995, seemed over. Shortly, riders began riding there more frequently -- including yours truly. I rode there just last week. Then, today, driving on the road thru the Res I see new "no bike" signs. It was a surprise, to say the least, but also does not reflect well on the county government. At the February meeting with riders, JORBA, and consultant CME Associates, riders were assured Union county intended to open the park to mountainbiking. There was precious little communication since; but after my Dec. 2015 OPRA request about the ban, the signs did come down. Why are they back? Was the county lying all along? Or is this some last ditch stalling attempt to keep riders out even while a new trail plan including cycling is drawn up? What happened to the 43,000 dollars paid to CME for said trail plan? Why was it never presented, the vote mysteriously cancelled? Why is the county, which promised to work with riders and in particular the Jersey Offroad Bicycling Association, not returning communications? Under what "law" are these signs posted? The signs quote at the bottom a county ordinance, part of the public safety code regulating bicycle riding on roads and sidewalks. This never had anything to do with mountainbiking or offroad trails, which is why it took an OPRA request in the beginning to find out if and why mt. biking was "banned" -- there is no law or ordinance on the books because as the gov't admitted in its OPRA response, "The freeholders did not act to exclude mountain biking". So what is going on? Hopefully citizens will protest this. I encourage all local riders to write the freeholders and demand fair park access and that the county cease trying to pretend an ordinance that says one thing means another. I have filed another OPRA request – we’ll see what happens.

10-20-16: a trailside center meeting on mt. biking drew a full house and lots of support. Thanks to all who showed, it seemed like nearly a hundred people or so. Write your freeholders and tell them you ride, you vote, and you are sick of being banned because some one allegedly had a bad experience with some rude backer two decades ago, or wants you to believe they did...


...Truth about the new no bike signs (video entry try)
JORBA - contact them, they want the ban gone too
......The Bike Stand, Steve's website
....THE REST OF the blog...