Steve Cowan was like a lot of kids growing up in Cape May County who considered riding all-terrain vehicles as a basic part of life in his rural mainland neighborhood.
“That’s how we used to get down to the local store to get bubble gum,” said Cowan, of Dennis Township, who’s now 43 with four children of his own.
Cowan’s children also grew up riding ATVs on the family’s six acres along Gravel Hole Road, but, today, not everyone finds that to be such an innocent hobby.
“They just refuse to recognize our basic fundamental right of peaceable living,” said Gary Gibson, who lives nearby and has complained about allegedly illegal off-road riding for years. “There are people here who just want to live in our homes. That’s all we want to do.”
There are few legal areas for ATV- and dirt-bike riding in New Jersey; ATV and dirt-bike riders often conduct their hobby on private, state or municipally owned property. A 2010 law directs the state Department of Environmental Protection to make substantial progress in finding three such sites in the state — one in the south, one in the center and one in the north — within three years or stricter regulations also contained in the law will expire.
In Woodbine, Cape May County, is the future site of the first state-owned ATV park. The 63-acre gravel pit is meant to provide a legal place to ride safely, courteously and without harming the environment.
The property was previously a motocross track, so officials are confident there should be few problems with it becoming one again. The real question, though, is whether it can help reduce illegal riding that people such as Gibson think is out of control.
“I think it will help people to have a place to go and ride and not aggravate the communities,” said Woodbine Mayor William Pikolycky, “especially the people in Upper and Dennis townships who have been complaining about these off-road vehicles.”
The DEP is drafting a request for proposals and an operating agreement for anyone interested in opening the Woodbine facility.
Finding other suitable sites has been a struggle, though, because of opposition from angry neighbors and concerned environmentalists.
The state purchased the Woodbine site for $393,000. It was formerly the Mount Pleasant Sand and Gravel pit, then the Mount Pleasant Motocross track and then a paintball facility. It’s currently unused.
When it was an off-road park it was very popular, but one of its co-owners, Louis Bianchino Jr., died about seven months after the park opened. He was grooming the course with a tractor and was traveling up an incline when the machine flipped backward and crushed him.
The park briefly reopened after that accident, but officials were unsure when it officially closed.
There is a 35-acre park in Egg Harbor Township run by the township Police Athletic League, the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville is developing an off-road park of its own and there is another raceway in Middlesex County.
There were more, but several have closed in recent years. One of the largest to close was the New Jersey Off-Road Vehicle Park, a 265-acre property in Woodland Township, Burlington County, in 2008. Earlier this year, Atco Raceway in Waterford Township, Camden County, also flattened its motocross track, citing problems with parking and traffic in the nearby area.
Kenny Montanaro used to run the Woodland park, which overflowed with riders on nice days before its nonrenewable 10-year permit with the New Jersey Conservation Foundation ended. Montanaro is now interested in running the Woodbine park.
“It’s a small area, but we’re mainly trying to be focused on families,” said Montanaro, 52, of Ocean Township. “I don’t want to turn it into a motocross track. The big problem in the state of New Jersey is there’s no place to recreationally ride.”
Montanaro said he started riding when he was 10 years old, and he believes one of the biggest problems with riding today is that parents buy their children ATVs or dirt bikes but then leave them unsupervised.
That allows them to ride in illegal areas, without safety equipment and tearing up private property and sensitive wildlife habitat.
“They don’t want to take the extra step and get involved with their kids,” he said.
He said he thinks the Woodbine facility will help cut down on illegal riding and noise pollution in more suburban areas, but Dennis Township’s Gibson is skeptical.
“It’s just pie in the sky to think there’s going to be any resolution for the county,” Gibson said. “My opinion is it’s just going to increase problems.”
Gibson and his neighbor Walter Noll have been pushing both local officials and state legislators for stricter regulations and better enforcement. The township formed a committee of ATV opponents, Gibson and Noll, and proponents, including Cowan, to try to work the problem out.
Everyone says progress has been slow, and it’s unclear whether there will ever be a resolution.
“The riding was not that bad to cause all this ruckus,” Cowan said.
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