Landowner considers turning 125 acres into public ATV park

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:49

    VERNON-ATV aficionados, their allies and their critics gathered at the municipal center last Thursday evening to thrash out solutions to the problems associated with rampant illegal ATV use. No absolute answer was forthcoming, but one resident surprised the gathering by saying he is considering turning 125 acres he owns on Route 517 at Vernon Crossing adjacent to Maple Grange Park into an ATV park. Moderating the meeting were Councilman Jeff Patterson, Police Chief Roy Wherry and Sgt. John Neate of the N.J. Division of Parks and Forestry. Neate, who oversees enforcement of motor vehicle laws in Wawayanda State Park, reminded the audience that they should get in touch with him as soon as they notice illegal riders in the Wawayanda area. "Don't wait until dark, and they have disappeared. Call us at once," he said. Patterson told the group that Vernon means to enforce the law prohibiting ATVs on public land strictly, immediately and severely. The police will not use predictable methods, the councilman said. Some residents have been grumbling about ATVs roaring through their neighborhoods at all hours, tearing up the environment and darting deer-like from trails into the roadway. ATV enthusiasts counter by saying that all ATV operators have been vilified in the minds of some citizens because a small minority of the operators are scofflaws. Law-abiding ATV fans are unanimous in averring that they are affronted by those who ruin the sport for others by trespassing and ignoring standard safety rules. "Absent a legal way to ride, they are going to ride illegally," said Nicolas Laganella, who later raised the possibility of providing a legal place to ride on his Vernon Crossing land. "I ride ATVs on my own land a few times a year, and I always find trespassers. I chase them away, but it really doesn't work," he said. "ATVs are a sport too. People want legal place to ride them," That has been the ongoing issue in Vernon: There is no public land on which it is legal to ride the popular machines. The enthusiasts argue that having safe, legal trails at a nearby Sussex County location would satisfy the reasonable desire of most riders to enjoy the sport in peace. Now, they must go all the way to South Jersey or out of state to find a legal ATV park. There are three ATV parks in the state, two in southern New Jersey: Chatworth in the Pine Barrens, and a racetrack in Millville; and one in Central Jersey: Raceway Park in Englishtown, which is in Monmouth County. Chatworth Park has a small trail system and mainly features tracks. The other two parks have no trails at all. Preservation advocate Jessica Paladini and archeologist Rick Patterson (no relation to the councilman) set off the debate on illegal ATV use at an April meeting of the historical preservation commission, where the two articulated their rage at the scofflaw ATV operators and their dissatisfaction at the slackness of Vernon's law enforcement efforts. Although illegal ATV riding is common in Vernon, they say local police issued only 16 summonses in 2004. Paladini and Patterson said they have observed the vehicles invading the Black Creek Historical site unchecked, eroding the landscape, leaving deep ruts and probably destroying irreplaceable American Indian artifacts. Department of Environmental Protection officials also have seen the damage and have expressed grave concerns about ATV riding on the Black Creek site, "We aren't going to sit back and watch people destroy the site," Paladini contended. Paladini and Patterson fought a long battle to have the Black Creek area listed on the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. The site was home to the Lenni Lenape American Indians and is rich with artifacts dating back to more than 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. The DEP bought the land from Vernon in April 2005. Jeff Patterson told the group that Vernon had called the meeting to enlist concerned citizens in thinking of ways to stop illegal activity. He asked those in attendance to offer ideas on the best way to solve the ongoing problem by first identifying the areas where illegal ATV use is out of control, and then coming up with ideas about how to deal with the violators. Pre-eminent amongst the solutions suggested by members of the public were solid education, consistent, strong law enforcement and a safe, legal place to ride. "Parents must educate their children about the safe use of ATVs," said Barbara Cook, who also thought that posting unmistakable warning signs would be a good start. Paladini supported enforcing a policy of zero tolerance on those who ride illegally by levying heavy fines and confiscating trespassing vehicles. "It's going to take making an example of someone," she said. Councilman Patterson told the group that he and Chief Wherry recently had discussed impounding illegally operated ATVs. Patterson explained that the issue is complex, with layers of law associated with it. When many citizens wondered why the township could not purchase a local property to provide riding trails for ATV operators, Patterson explained that township liability is at issue. The sport is best managed from the private sector, he noted. Sean Vanderwall, 15, Speaking on behalf of other young riders who obey the law, he said, "Organized team sports don't appeal to everyone. I love sports of all kinds, including skiing and playing volleyball, but ATV riding is one of my favorites."Kids who ride ATVs aren't out doing drugs or drinking beer. My friends are responsible riders."