Erie County Parks Master Planning Process
The biggest news by far in 2002-2003 for Erie County Cyclists was the County Parks Master Planning process. There had been very little legal bicycling access in Erie County, and what little there is, or opportunity for more, is in the Erie County Parks. WNYMBA worked hard during the master planning process to secure access to riding in county parks. Information on the County Master Planning Process is available at their web site.
The draft final plan for the Erie County Park system was released with fanfare on March 1 2003, complete with prominent newspaper and radio coverage. The plan did not change significantly from the draft versions released late last year. We were relieved to see this because, although it calls on compromises on our part it recognizes bicycling as a integral component of the park system, and should result in increased opportunities for riding. In fact, in the introductory section, it states that “As for what park goers would like to see in the park system, again, there is no clear activity that stands out alone. Mountain biking did receive the highest percentage of votes (5.34%), however, horseback riding (4.85%), educational programs and more trails were also widely noted (4.37%). Other activities also to be looked at include guided nature tours and wilderness activities.”
It looks like riding should be available in all the parks that we are interested in for providing good places to ride (Hunters Creek, Sprague Brook, Franklin Gulf, Eighteen Mile, etc.). Mountain biking is specifically mentioned in the Hunters Creek and Sprague Brook plans, while the other two former “land banks” don’t have comprehensive plans. However, as has been said before, the devil will be in the details and much relies on the implementation phase. For example, for all these parks, the plan says that a trails consultant should be hired to determine final trail layouts.
Although it is just one of the parks addressed, Hunters Creek was examined in more detail than many others. This, of course, has historically been the most popular park for cyclists. The plan retains the requirement advanced in the earlier drafts for up to about 1.5 miles of trail to be hiking only, meaning that we will have to give up some sustainable trail mileage. This is the compromise that we will have to accept in order to gain access to the rest of the park. “Rest of the park” does not mean status quo however. We have long supported closure of unsustainable trails in this park, and the master plan calls for this. However, the details on this remain to be worked out.
Quoting from the Hunters Creek plan:
In general, the master plan is promoting a network of “multi-use” trails which provide the greatest opportunity of use for the greatest number of user types. However, a recommendation has been made for a short, approximately 1-½ mile tranquility” or “serenity” trail loop that includes an approximate 1-mile of hiking/equestrian only trail sections combined with ½ mile of multi-use section. This would allow “non-avid/nonexperienced” hikers to traverse a small, yet highly scenic, section of the park in quiet solitude, while being easily accessed from the parking area.
- Although occasional conflicts between various user types do occur, as do they in other local, county, state and national parks, it is typically only a few disrespectful users that do not adhere to proper trail etiquette. These users should be identified and educated as to the appropriate use and conduct within this park. The recommendation for Hunters Creek Park is to better organize and properly sign the trail system, which will in turn reduce the number of potential conflicts.
- One idea from other parks throughout the country is to have the Mountain Bikers utilize some sort of bell or other notification method as they approach walkers or equestrians from behind, so as not to startle the slower trail users.
- Four-seasons trail use will be promoted, including Cross-Country Skiing and snow-shoeing over the winter months. (Note that seasonal trail closures, or temporary closures due to wetness or erosion, will be adhered to for environmental sustainability.)
The details of the plan will be determined by consensus through an expanded Friends of Hunters Creek organization. Again, according to the plan:
· A new Park Advisory Group / Steering Committee, expanding on the current Friends of Hunters Creek Park, should be established to assist in future decision making in Hunters Creek Park. This newer “Friends” group should have representation from:
- all user groups within the park
- adjacent neighbors/surrounding property owners
- County Parks Department and/or Environment and Planning Department
- County Department of Public Works
- County Legislature / Legislative District representative
- Wales Center Fire Department Rescue Squad
- Town of Wales
- Town of Aurora (if interest is there)
- Erie County Environmental Management Council
- Local Environmental Groups
- Gas Pipeline Company
- Possible monthly (or bi-monthly or quarterly) meeting topics could include trails development and upgrade, park maintenance, volunteer and Union work efforts, enforcement of rules and regulations, educational programs, problem resolution and public relations, parking issues, etc.
- As resources allow, the Erie County Parks Department should assign management of Hunters Creek Park to a designated individual within the department, such as a superintendent, County Forester or equivalent. This individual should chair meetings of the “Friends” Group. All future trail recommendations (additions, improvements, enhancements, etc.) shall pass through a thorough review by the County Parks and Environment & Planning Departments, following all general guidelines established under this master plan. All new planned park improvements would be subject to environmental review (SEQRA) as applicable by project funding sources, approval actions and overall scope of the project.
With the exception of the 1.5 mile hiking/equestrian only section which we reluctantly accept as a compromise among the competing interests of this park, the plan is consistent with the recommendations we have made during the master planning process. Implementation of this plan should make Hunters Creek a better place. However, we have to vigilant to ensure that the vision of this plan is not thwarted by special interests. The plan states that:
· The top priority for the County at Hunters Creek Park is the preservation and enhancement of the environment. Long-term environmental sustainability will be considered for all future use proposals.
· All trails that are deemed unsustainable or damaging to the natural environment within the park will be closed, moved or improved. Seasonal trail closures will also be recommended for problem trails to preserve the integrity of these specific trails for continued use, i.e. those trails that travel in or near wet areas, etc.
· Any activities within the park that cause irreparable damage to the park will be prohibited. Problem trail sections will be closed.
· Promotion of the natural setting and restoration of native habitats will be priorities. Establishing a peaceful setting for environmental education and study will be a priority in the final park design.
These are all tenets that we support. However, some folks have in the past insisted that bicycling on trails is somehow less environmentally friendly than hiking, despite the evidence to the contrary. We will need to be active in the implementation phase so that environmental issues are not raised as an excuse to remove bicycles from more trails. And while final decisions on trail closures will depend greatly on the findings of trail consultants to be hired by the county, we need to be actively engaged in this process and make sure only the truly unsustainable trails are closed. Unfortunately, some trails that have problems now are inherently problematic, and can be made sustainable with some maintenance, but the volunteer/union issue is still not worked out, and I fear the 2003 maintenance season will be lost.
The quotes above are just a small portion of the master plan. This really is a well put together document, and praise should go out to Parsons and their team on developing a good comprehensive document. I urge all of you to check out the entire report.
Implementation is key
The implementation phase of the master plan will be absolutely critical. The master plan only provides the framework for the implementation of the plans. The trail networks of various parks need to be reviewed for sustainability. Decisions need to be made for where new trails will go and where trails should be removed. The plan allows for implementation of biking on some trails at other county parks such as Chestnut Ridge which were formerly closed. All this will need to be resolved during implementation.
We also will have to be prepared to assist the county as we promised during the planning process. While the unions still are remaining obstinate about banning volunteers from parks, Commissioner Jasinski is still trying to find a way around that, we have complete confidence that he will. Once this issue is worked out, we will need to provide the county with the trail maintenance that has long been neglected in most parks. We also will likely be forming a chapter of the National Mountain Bike Patrol, like we (together with the Rochester Bicycle Club) did to open the FLT at Letchworth.
Trail Work Volunteering
The immense amount of trail work we do for the DEC on state land has been key to the great riding there. We hope to duplicate that in Erie County once the master plan is adopted.