BY ERIN ROLL
Earlier this year, Cedar Grove resident and frequent Mills Reservation visitor Don Sarlin said he noticed people — not park personnel — using chainsaws to clear away trees at the park. People going around the park with chainsaws was alarming to Sarlin. They were cutting down trees that were blocking bike trails created by enthusiasts over the years.
Sarlin contacted officials of Newark, which owns the neighboring reservoir, in early June.
Last week, Essex County officials announced they are stepping up enforcement against illegal off-road biking in county parks.
Man-made biking structures, which have been growing in number over the years, will be removed, and unofficial trails created by the enthusiasts will be repaired, officials said.
To protect the safety of visitors and the environment, mountain and off-road biking has been prohibited in county parks since the 1990s, according to a county statement issued on June 24.
After visitors reported the creation of trails, ramps and bridges at Brookdale Park and Mills Reservation, park staff began dismantling the structures and repairing damage to the flora.
“We are partnering with our sheriff’s office to prevent any future activity from occurring. We ask that members of the public please adhere to the rules and respect nature and the safety of others,” the June 24 statement said.
County spokesman Anthony Puglisi referred to the county administrative code on the prohibition of biking off-road: “No person on county property shall ride a bicycle or other vehicle on any surface other than a paved vehicular road, or on a path designated for that purpose. A bicyclist is permitted to wheel or push a bicycle by hand over any grassy area or wooded trail or on any paved area reserved for pedestrian use.”
The code also forbids disturbing or removing any tree, plant, rock or other natural feature from the park.
One of the stipulations of the Davella Mills Foundation is that the land be left as is, Sarlin said.
On the Lenape Trail near the Cedar Grove Reservoir, just outside of the reservation, Sarlin saw a BMX-type ramp built along a ravine.
According to Sarlin, an engineer responding to his report on the structures said: “Holy crap. Someone could get killed.”
The Brookdale Park Conservancy noted a recent increase in bike traffic in the southwest corner of the park, specifically through the wooded areas south of the dog park. The trails in that area are not county-made or approved.
The conservancy is an all-volunteer group, independent of the county, that helps maintain the gardens, wooded areas and other sections of the park.
As it is also not permissible for any person to damage, cut, disturb, injure, or impair the vegetation in the park, the county has called in sheriff’s deputies to patrol the area and issue fines when necessary.
However, on social media, some commenters said that the trails had been there for many years, and that there are few places where children can bicycle.
Don McLaughlin, the incoming chairman of the Brookdale Park Conservancy, said the conservancy has seen an increase in biking in the southwest corner of the park in recent days.
“I think maybe after the lockdown here with COVID … I think there was an upsurge in park usage,” McLaughlin said.
Additionally, bikers were taking logs and building up dirt around them to make ramps, he said. There were also concerns about saplings being chopped down.
The “wilderness area” that the enthusiasts frequent needs to remain in a mostly natural state, McLaughlin said.
County staff have posted signs and have begun removing the ramps, he said.
Biking should be done only on the paved roadways in the park. McLaughlin added that the county tries to weigh the different needs of park user groups, and that sometimes those groups bump into each other.
Some people have objected to the conservancy’s stance on removal of the off-road bike trails, he said, but many others approved of it.
Mills Reservation has been the location of at least one bike fatality in recent years.
In 2017, 49-year-old Kerry Rivera died when he lost control of his bike on an overlook near Old Quarry Road and fell into a ravine.
Rivera’s widow filed a lawsuit against Essex County, and Montclair and Cedar Grove officials, in Essex County Superior Court in June 2019. As of this week, the case was pending. The lawsuit alleged negligence on the part of county officials and failure to maintain safe conditions at the park.
In their response to the suit, county and township officials said that Rivera’s death was solely the result of his actions and asked for the case to be dismissed.