Mountain bike bridges returning in Glouco controversy

Robert Hess, 38, of Glassboro , leads a group of bikers in Ceres Park in Mantua. He said of the bridges controversy: "This was a rallying point for our group." CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Robert Hess, 38, of Glassboro , leads a group of bikers in Ceres Park in Mantua. He said of the bridges controversy: "This was a rallying point for our group." CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
Posted: February 11, 2013

The title of the photo album posted that day on Facebook said everything: "massacre on November 19, 2010."

That was the visceral reaction the mountain bikers of Ceres Park in Mantua Township had when they saw the wooden bridges they built had been cut down with chain saws on orders from Gloucester County officials.

There was no notification from the county, one biker said.

The bridges, which were built over streams, fallen trees, and swampland, not only made biking easier, but the bikers felt they kept the environment safer at the nature preserve. But some people had fallen off them and been hurt, and rumors swirled that someone had successfully sued the county.

The county removed the bridges because of safety concerns, spokeswoman Debra Sellitto said. But now, more than two years later, most of the bridges are back up, rebuilt by the same volunteers, and one is pending approval from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

A reconstruction of the tussle for Ceres Park over the last two years shows that the happy ending for the bikers - regaining their ability to ride freely in the 53-acre preserve - didn't come easily.

The county took down the bridges over two weeks, and "all we could do was watch," said Robert Hess, 38, of Glassboro.

"This was a rallying point for our group."

The township owns the park, but some of the trails snake through county property near Pitman Golf Course, which is owned and operated by the county, Sellitto said.

Soon after the bridges were taken down, Mantua police signaled that the bikers were not welcome at the park, Hess said.

Angie Sokorai, 39, of Wenonah, said mountain biking "becomes such a way of life and stress outlet, and so much fun, that when it's threatened, you don't want to give it up."

"You think, 'Can I go rogue and just do this and not get caught? Or can we possibly get permission?' "

The park, tucked away off Main Street, is a woodsy area with two lakes where ducks and geese rest in warmer weather, and fallen leaves crunch as deer and other wildlife roam the forest.

Previously, without DEP approval, bikers built the main bridge over a stream that bisects the park. The bridges that do not encroach on stream water do not need to be approved by the agency, township administrator Jennica Bileci said.

Mantua Police Capt. David Mastrogiacomo disputed the suggestion that his department had chased away bikers. "We don't make it a habit of going in there and telling the guys not to mountain bike in that area. Not that I'm aware of," he said.

Regardless, in a crucial step to allay reservations the township or county may have had about the bridges, the group obtained liability insurance through the nonprofit Jersey Off Road Bicycle Association.

In March 2011, the group held a cleanup day to haul trash from the parking lot and stream. The county Board of Freeholders praised those maintenance efforts in a letter addressed to Hess.

Such acts of good faith, Hess said, helped debunk the perception of the mountain bikers as a group of unruly kids who treated the nature preserve as their own personal skate park.

"They didn't realize it's adults with families. It's a family-oriented sport," said Hess, who bikes with his 16-year-old son and hikes the trails with his wife, 3-year-old daughter, and dog. He estimated about 100 bikers ride in the park, and many more jog and go on hikes.

Nevertheless, the Township Committee harbored concerns that it could be held liable for injuries. It cited a "successful" lawsuit against the county, according to the minutes of its November 2011 meeting. Sellitto, the county spokeswoman, said the county was not sued.

The committee indicated it would be satisfied with plans to build the bridge over the stream if the bikers obtained permission from the state.

"We used this chance as a way to band together and try to do this right - legally and officially, and get actual permission," Sokorai said.

Steve Blackman, owner of a bike shop who has been riding at Ceres Park for 25 years, said that although he was initially angry to find that the bridges had been removed, he understood the county's rationale. "We were on someone else's land," he said.

Late last month, the bikers submitted an application for wetlands and flood-hazard permits to the DEP. And in a sign that it would welcome the new bridge, the township paid the $1,000 application fee.

The agency is beginning to review the application, spokesman Larry Hajna said. It will examine whether the bridge could endanger animals in the stream or exacerbate flooding.

Hess hopes the DEP will approve the application by April, at which point the township is also expected to sign off on the plan.

As for the bridges that have already been rebuilt, Hess has not received any assurances from the county that it will not remove them again in the event of another injury.

But, he said, "I'm banking that they're going to give me a call."


Contact Andrew Seidman at 856-779-3846, aseidman@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @AndrewSeidman.

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