Though hope has dimmed, drive still on for legal ATV trails

08/12/2010 12:00 AM |

Paul Romer (left) with his children Alyssa, 11, and Krista, 7, and wife Elexis on property leased by Long Island Recreational Trails Conservancy in East Quogue.

More than a dozen times a year, Paul Romer and his family pack up the car, along with three ATVs and two dirtbikes, and leave Long Island for some weekend riding. Mr. Romer, his wife and their two daughters travel from their Baiting Hollow home to places in Connecticut, southern New Jersey and beyond, dropping about $500 each trip. Expenses add up quickly.

“Food, lodging, gas,” Mr. Romer said. “You name it.”

But he’s willing to pay the price for the family bonding and wholesome fun. “My kids and wife absolutely love it,” he said.

Mr. Romer is one of thousands of Long Islanders who ride ATVs, or all-terrain vehicles, and who travel several times a year to do so legally, spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars along the way.

Five years after a county task force first convened to explore finding a suitable location in Suffolk County, there are still no legal trails here open to the public — save for a small trail in East Quogue where safety courses are offered by a nonprofit group of ATV advocates. And judging by the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s strong stance against the activity, and the attitude of Long Island’s powerful environmental community, getting a legal track here will likely continue to be a struggle.

Still, riders remain hopeful.

According to county law, a person can operate an ATV only on private property that he or she owns, or with the owner’s written consent. Illegal riding carries a penalty of up to $250 for first-time offenders and vehicles can be impounded.

In 2005, Suffolk County formed the task force to investigate the need for, and the feasibility of, a designated, controlled location for ATV riding. The group concluded in 2006 that there was a need for such a trail and the county could build it, according to its 394-page final report.

The task force found that an ATV trail could be a revenue source for the county through riding and membership fees. It also found that a privately operated track on publicly owned land would, for liability reasons, be the best option for the county.

The biggest obstacle has been securing the space needed, 50 to 500 acres, according to Suffolk County Legislator Dan Losquadro (R-Shoreham), who sat on the task force.

He said there is a lot of competition for the county’s land preservation funds and not a lot of support for using it to create public ATV trails.

“The idea to purchase land really has not garnered a lot of support on the county level,” said Mr. Losquadro, who rode ATVs for many years but has since sold his. “That’s not to say anyone has given up on it.”

Mr. Losquadro said the best option would be to use land, most likely foreclosed properties already owned by the county, that is large enough to convert into a trail and is not environmentally pristine. He urged anyone who is aware of such properties, such as the site of a former sand mine, to make the suggestion to their county legislator.

“If we could find a suitable site, we would manage it, we would handle it,” said Tom Riker, a Miller Place resident and member of the Long Island Recreational Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit group that promotes land acquisition for trails and responsible ATV riding.

Mr. Riker said that his group is the largest ATV organization on the East Coast, with 700 members, which is ironic because none of them have a nearby public place to ride.

According to the Suffolk County Police Department, the worst illegal ATV hot spots in northeastern Brookhaven Town lie just south of Longwood Road in Yaphank and off Bauer Avenue in Manorville. Riverhead Town Police Chief David Hegermiller said Jamesport State Park — 233 acres of undeveloped state land along the Long Island Sound in Northville — is one of the worst illegal riding spots in Riverhead. He said many people also ride at the former Northrop Grumman property in Calverton, though, he said, he thinks that some riders have permission from property owners.

“We’ve had the highest ridership we’ve ever had and no legal public riding space,” Mr. Losquadro noted.

Mr. Losquadro acknowledged that the problem of illegal riding will never go away, but the availability of a public trail would certainly decrease it.

Another roadblock ATV users on Long Island face, riders say, is a public perception that their sport is dangerous, environmentally intrusive and a major source of noise pollution.

Indeed, the state DEC’s position is that ATVs can “severely impact soil, causing erosion, fragmenting wooded and forested properties by widening existing and creating new trails, spreading invasive plant seeds, and disrupting sensitive and endangered wildlife,” according to a spokesperson.

Environmentalists feel the same.

“ATV riding on public land … is one of the most harmful assaults on the environment Long Island currently faces,” said Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Long Island’s drinking water. “ATVs tear up the terrain, destroy plants, scare animals, introduce pollutants into the air and water and pose a serious safety risk for people peacefully using the woods,” he said.

Mr. Amper said it is not clear how many people would opt to use a public trail if one existed locally and he doubted whether or not it would cut back on illegal riding.

Mr. Riker said beliefs like those held by Mr. Amper are just perception. “I think there is discrimination against the user group,” he said. “If this [building an ATV trail] was a golf course, we’d already be swinging the clubs.”

As for the danger, Mr. Riker’s group advocates safe riding and offers free safety training courses at the East Quogue site. He also stressed that his group does not advocate racing on tracks or fast riding and likened what his members do to leisurely outdoor activities such as horseback riding.

According to the task force report, only 1 percent of ATV-related deaths occur while riding trails as opposed to tracks.

As for environmental problems, Mr. Riker said they are why his group is seeking already disturbed land.

“You have a lot of people who are doing the wrong thing,” he said. “All the more reason that we find a suitable site.”

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