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NEW JERSEY - Off-road vehicle registration back on legislative terrain

MustangAndy

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LINK: Asbury Park Press

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TRENTON — A renewed push to require registration of off-road vehicles — and stiff penalties for illegal riding that include fines up to $1,000 and confiscating vehicles from repeat offenders — has started in the state Legislature and could spur development of new off-road parks, backers said Wednesday.

"I think we need the legislation, and the parks will come," said Fred Akers of the Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association, one of several environmental advocates who described the legislation at a Statehouse news conference.

Led by the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, off-road critics began organizing a few years ago to push for tougher enforcement of trespassing violations and illegal vehicle use on state lands. Unrestricted off-road riders damage stands of threatened and endangered plant species in the Pinelands, cause erosion on stream banks and disturb wildlife and other users of public lands, said Jaclyn Rhoads of the alliance.

"They don't belong on public land that's been set aside for low-impact recreation," she said.

The groups' presentation came a day after a stakeholders' meeting in Trenton to discuss the bill, A-823, that was introduced in an earlier form last year by primary sponsor Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer. That meeting also discussed the state Department of Environmental Protection's plans for an off-road vehicle park at a former sand mine in Monroe, Gloucester County.

DEP Deputy Commissioner John "Jay" Watson Jr. has been working on the proposal, "and he still wants to pursue that piece," said Kenny Montanaro of the New Jersey Off-Road Vehicle Park, a nonprofit group that has operated on land near Chatsworth in Burlington County for nearly a decade.

But the group's one-of-a-kind lease with the landowner, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, will expire later this year, and that has riders anxious about being left with no legal place to ride, Montanaro said.

"We have not gotten any progress yet," Montanaro said, adding that the group is looking for other alternatives, too. "If they have no other parks planned or opening, it could be two years to open one, with all the planning and permits you'd need. ... So that's our problem."

Former DEP Commissioner Bradley Campbell committed the agency to opening new, officially sanctioned riding centers by 2005, after an enforcement crackdown in 2003.

In addition to the Monroe site, another riders' group has been looking at potential sites in southern Ocean County, east of the Garden State Parkway where properties are not encumbered by Pinelands regulations. In November, the Atlantic Off-Highway Vehicle Park Inc. won a $338,218 grant from the Federal Highway Administrations's recreational trails program through the DEP to help fund that project.

A private speedway in Millville is also working on an off-road track at its facility, Akers said.

Tougher sanctions on illegal riding are needed even if new parks open, said Alison Mitchell of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, which owns the land used by the Off-Road Vehicle Park since 1998.

"There are people riding there legally, responsibly, but that's done nothing to stem the illegal riding," Mitchell said. "Legal parks are not the answer. . . . It's become incredibly clear to us . . . people go right next door and ride illegally."

Mitchell described the ongoing search for a new park and illegal riding as "separate issues."

"If there's no deterrent and no penalty, you aren't going to stop it," she said of illegal riding.

It's not just a problem in the Pinelands, said William P. O'Hearn of the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference, a federation of 100 hiking clubs that maintain paths in the hills of northern New Jersey.

"No sooner do we declare a place open space then the riders are all over it," O'Hearn said.
 
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