20 officers on site, but AOAA protest goes bust
COAL TOWNSHIP - Law enforcement was more than prepared to handle any trouble that could have arisen out of a scheduled protest that was expected to draw dozens of people to the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) Saturday.
But their concerns were relieved when no protestors showed up, at least that they saw.
"Our main concern was for the safety of the protestors, race participants and AOAA personnel," Coal Township Police Chief William Carpenter said. A racing event was taking place at the park during the scheduled noon to 6 p.m. protest hours.
Carpenter was monitoring the grounds of the Northumberland County-owned off-highway vehicle park with approximately 20 law enforcement personnel, including several officers from his own department, state police, county deputy sheriffs and AOAA security guards.
Carpenter said he was especially concerned that protest organizer Matt Reidinger "invited the entire county to join him in committing defiant trespass."
Reidinger said earlier in the week he was upset that public land once used for free by local residents for riding, hunting, hiking and other activities was now under the control of "a handful of individuals" and future use will involve having to pay. He encouraged people to join him in saying "enough is enough."
Organizer: 'My bad'
Reidinger promoted his event with a Facebook site, "March on the AOAA Day of Mass Protest," and 45 people indicated they would attend. But in a Facebook discussion with a potential protester on his site about 3:15 p.m. Saturday, Reidinger said only "a couple people" showed up at the designated meeting spot near the Northumberland County Career and Technology Center, about one mile from the AOAA trailhead.
"We went to the AOAA," Reidinger said. "I did my part. It's not my fault people who said they were attending didn't show."
Reidinger posted a photo of himself standing in the woods near a tree with a yellow "AOAA Property" sign on it.
The other commenter chided Reidinger over the protest bust.
"I know of hundreds of people against this park, but inviting people to 'trespass' and not being there doesn't look good for the cause, or for many of the good people that are against having the park here," he wrote. "12 to 6 was the event time. I didn't see any protest. Neither did a few other people I know of that would have attended."
Reidinger did apologize, and added, "If everyone who said they were coming actually showed we would have stayed as a group."
Another commenter said they couldn't be there at 11:30, "but we did show up, but no one was there except for the Coal Township police and the state police so we went home!"
"I know William and I apologize for that," Reidinger replied. "Just seen the original turnout and figured no one was attending. My bad."
Later Saturday, Reidinger repeated some of those thoughts in a reply to questions emailed to him by The News-Item after he said he couldn't call. He said there was a "dramatic difference" between those who said they'd come and those who showed.
"I do apologize to the handful of individuals who came later in the day to find no visible protest, but I do hope they realize that certain individuals did follow through with the plans," he wrote. "In regards to a future protest, I will always stand up for what I believe in. It may not always be as successful as I would like, but it is better to stand for something than nothing. I will not idly stand by."
Reidinger had posted on Facebook Friday that there would be an area set up for those who wanted to protest without trespassing. He stressed that it was a "peaceful assembly and any violence or vandalism will not be tolerated."
As the day went on and it appeared no protestors would appear, Carpenter relieved various officers from duty. He said he wasn't disappointed the anticipated protest turned into a "total bust."
"We didn't want to cite anyone," he said. "We provided a safe area approximately 100 yards away from the main parking area for the protestors to conduct a peaceful protest. But as it turned out, we didn't need it."
On Friday, Carpenter said he had no problem with a peaceful protest, but issued a warning that anyone crossing the AOAA property line that is clearly marked with signs would be cited for a summary offense of defiant trespass, which is punishable by a fine of up to $300 plus court costs and or 90 days in jail.
If someone defied an order to leave the land, the offense could have turned into a misdemeanor with the offender being taken into custody, Carpenter said.
In addition to foot patrols, Coal Township officers rode an all-terrain vehicle in various sections of the 6,500-acre AOAA, but didn't spot any protestors.
Carpenter said authorities did find a board with a nail in it along a path east of Route 125 above Burnside. But the chief said he didn't know how long the board had been there and may not have had any connection to the planned protest.
A vehicle with a bull horn and some poster board was found by police on top of the mountain, too, but no operator was located.
Glad, but understands
Jim Backes, chairman of the AOAA Authority, said he was glad no protest occurred, even though he understands that people do have a right to conduct a peaceful demonstration in opposition to the park.
Backes, who was painting a door at the AOAA office when interviewed Saturday, said he was puzzled that Reidinger, of Coal Township, would organize a protest when, in a reply to a News-Item Facebook post in November asking to cite one positive change people would like to see in the community, he suggested the creation of boards to oversee regulated recreation areas, and said the area needs an economic development plan.
"We are basically trying to do some of the things Reidinger recommended," Backes said. "We are actively managing this property to make improvements in economic development, conservation of natural resources and recreational opportunities."
He added, "I feel the county looks at the AOAA as a great opportunity not only for economic development, but to make these old coal lands cleaner and safer for the people who use them. Instead of using county taxpayers' dollars, we are charging user fees to the riders so we can eventually put a full staff in place to effectively manage the adventure area."
Official opening May 17
Backes reminded the public that the official opening of the AOAA is Saturday, May 17. It will be open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.
For now, only weekend hours are planned for 2014, although some four-day weekends - Friday through Monday - are possible.