ATV bills would tighten enforcement, create riding parks

Dale Freitas and his son Stephen , in Burlington. Freitas said a lack of legal ATV tracks forces riders onto public land.
Dale Freitas and his son Stephen , in Burlington. Freitas said a lack of legal ATV tracks forces riders onto public land.
Posted: July 06, 2009

Dennis Farmer fears he will never share the thrill of riding ATVs with his 6-year-old son.

Fred Akers worries about the survival of the Pine Barrens tree frog.

As two bills related to off-highway vehicles make their way through the state Legislature, outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists are once again at odds over ATV use in New Jersey.

The fates of the bills, one that would increase regulation of all-terrain vehicles and another that would designate three parks for their use, are intertwined after being tied together by the Senate in March. One cannot pass without approval of the other, leading to both cooperation and consternation among the two groups.

"Everyone has their own ideas on how to fix this problem," said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Mercer), who serves as primary sponsor on both bills. "Some feel that registration and fines, the stick, is enough. Others want the parks, the carrot, as well."

The problem, like the proposed solution, is twofold.

Riding on publicly owned land, such as state parks and refuges, is prohibited, and few privately owned tracks cater to off-highway vehicles. Statewide, only a handful of tracks and one park hold occasional ATV races.

"In New Jersey," Farmer said, "it feels like this sport is dying."

Farmer was the president of one of the last legal ATV trails, the New Jersey Off Road Vehicle Park, which operated for 10 years out of Chatsworth until its lease expired in September and was not renewed by the Pinelands Commission.

"When I was little, I used to be able to push my ATV down the drive, make a turn, drive off into the woods, and ride all day," he said. "There's no way you can do that today. Now you have to be able to load it on a trailer and take it somewhere."

Dale Freitas, president of the New Jersey Off Highway Vehicle Association, said the absence of legal tracks forced riders to take their ATVs and motorbikes onto public land.

"The solution has always been to exclude us from using the land and hope we'll go away," he said.

Responsible riders are taking their business to parks in Pennsylvania, Farmer said. But if legal places to ride were available nearby, people would flock to them instead.

"If given a choice, I think [ATV riders] would rather not be run down like criminals," he said.

However, environmentalists such as Emile DeVito, head ecologist for the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, point to the devastation they say ATVs have caused.

"Entire tracts of wetlands have turned into mud pits," he said, because of erosion caused by large tires tearing through the Pine Barrens.

The Department of Environmental Protection estimates the annual cost of repairing trails and ecosystems disrupted by unauthorized off-highway vehicles at $1 million.

Authorities also point to the danger such vehicles pose to their drivers and passengers. Since 1982, there have been 75 ATV-related deaths in the state. Eighteen of those have occurred in the last four years.

Akers, executive director of the Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association, said ATV riders congregated in the woods and gravel pits near his house on the weekends.

"We have to be careful when we're pulling out of the driveway that they're not racing down the street," he said.

The parks bill, which would require the DEP to choose three locations for off-highway-vehicle parks, was approved by the Senate during the final meeting of the legislative session last month.

"This bill's been a long time coming," said Sen. Shirley Turner (D., Mercer), who has sponsored the bill for four years.

Turner is optimistic the bill will pass the Assembly by November. Should that happen, the DEP would have nine months to comb through its land holdings and available private land to find suitable sites for ATV use.

The DEP has been searching for such a site since 2002, said John S. Watson, deputy commissioner for natural resources. So far, no new parks have been created.

"It's been very hard finding a location that met all the criteria we needed," he said.

Carleton Montgomery, executive director of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, said it might be impossible to find the sites in such a limited amount of time.

"Unfortunately, whenever a site is identified, it tends to bring out a lot of opposition," he said. "Neighbors don't want people riding in their backyards."

In 2005, the department bought an abandoned sand mine in Monroe for $1.2 million in hopes of finding a private operator to turn it into an ATV park.

Amid protest from nearby residents and environmentalists, the town zoning board refused to approve the park, and the site remains unused.

Akers said the process the DEP had used for finding a site was inherently flawed.

"The same rules that would apply to other development should be applied to ATV parks," he said. "When it turns out that endangered species are on a site, it messes up their plan. If they'd had site surveys to see what might be there first, they could've avoided this."

Once industrial sites are abandoned, animals can move in quickly, leading to the development of new ecosystems.

"I happen to know that there were barn owls and a population of at least 50 Pine Barren tree frogs there," he said.

In 2007, the DEP changed its approach by restricting its involvement to helping outside organizations buy land. It awarded a $338,218 Recreational Trails Program grant to Atlantic Off-Highway Vehicle Park Inc. to establish an ATV facility in Ocean County.

Freitas, the organization's president, has been trying to secure a gravel pit in Little Egg Harbor Township for the last two years. It all comes down to a zoning-board meeting July 14 that will consider a variance to allow the ATV park to operate in an area zoned residential.

"We're under contract with the owner," he said. "It's all depending on if this goes through."

Whether ATV enthusiasts get their parks is also dependent on the passage of the registration bill in November.

The bill was scheduled to come up for a vote last month, DeVito said, but was pulled at the last minute.

Chance Lykens of Insight Consulting Services, a lobbying firm hired by the Off Highway Vehicle Association, said riders were concerned registration fees and penalties would increase while they still had no parks to enjoy.

"It's like saying I should be allowed to break the law until people provide me with a place to do something that's otherwise illegal," DeVito said. "It'll take years to locate a park. We can't afford to wait."

Farmer said increasing registration fees and fines for riding in restricted areas was not fair unless there were parks available.

"If you're illegal riding and there's a legal place to ride, I'm for whatever fine you give them," he said. "But if you have nowhere to ride, increasing the fines will stop some people, but a lot of these off-roaders will go out anyway."

Besides the uncertainty over having legal places to ride, ATV users object to other aspects of the enforcement bill.

George Trapani, owner of Trapani Race Setups, said he had lost half of his business since the Chatsworth park closed and believed the proposed requirement that all off-highway vehicles be registered at the Department of Motor Vehicles was pointless.

Farmer is worried his son will never have the experiences he did growing up riding ATVs because the proposed bill prohibits children younger than 14 from riding on publicly funded land.

That would exclude young riders from the three proposed new parks and the Egg Harbor Police Athletic League, which offers Saturday ATV-riding classes for children ages 6 and up.

"If my 6-year-old has to wait until he's 14, he may not be interested anymore," Farmer said. "Over a few generations, they'll eliminate the whole sport."

DeVito said there had been an unwritten agreement between environmental and ATV groups that if environmentalists supported the parks bill, ATV enthusiasts would support the enforcement bill.

"They've lied to me up and down," he said. "I'm done working with them."

Gusciora said the failure of both bills to pass last month meant he would spend the summer bringing both sides back together.

"It's a complicated issue," he said. "We need to redouble our efforts to get all stakeholders on the same page."


Contact staff writer Wallace McKelvey at 856-779-3917 or wmckelvey@phillynews.com.

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