Fourth in a series

BURNSIDE - County and state officials will be joined by off-road industry representatives and others to mark the official opening of the Anthracite Outdoor Adventure Area (AOAA) Friday and Saturday.

But not everyone is in a celebratory mood.

Since its inception, the idea of an off-highway vehicle park on 6,500 acres of Northumberland County-owned land has been met by some with questions or outright opposition. The most frequent complaint is that the county will now control what had been unrestricted use of the land for hunting, hiking and off-road riding that locals enjoyed for decades.

Charging to ride

Cliff Garner, of 1102 Bear Valley Road, Coal Township, believes the AOAA is not ready to open and shouldn't be charging county residents to ride.

Garner, who moved from Lancaster County to the Shamokin area 12 years ago with his wife to take care of his elderly mother-in-law, said he's not for or against the AOAA, but has many concerns.

"I wish them the best of luck, but I think they rushed into opening the AOAA," he said.

"Who is going to get hung if it doesn't pan out over time?"

He believes county taxpayers should have full and free access to the property, including for hunting.

"I have serious questions how this park will benefit the majority of residents in Northumberland County," he said. "I believe they are creating public debt that taxpayers may be responsible for down the road."

The AOAA Authority voted to discount costs for county residents to purchase passes for the park. But they've said that those who have been riding there for years were technically trespassing. Even though it's publicly owned property, that doesn't mean it can be used by anyone for anything at any time.

"The only group of people who don't understand this concept is the local community," authority member Barry Yorwarth said last week. "It is because for years their parents and grandparents used it for free and never had to go anywhere."

Yorwarth said he was one of those people and understands the concerns of local residents, but said charging riders to access the land will benefit the community and preserve the riding area.

Garner said he believes more effort should be given to attracting businesses instead of creating an off-road "amusement park," although he does believe some local businesses will benefit from the AOAA.

Garner did credit the authority and county officials for developing the trailhead area at the AOAA off Route 125.

"It really looks good up there," he said.

Garner, who is not an off-road vehicle enthusiast, believes it's more important to develop trails for hiking, biking and equestrian riding. AOAA officials have said the master plan calls for those features at the park, but ATVs and other off-highway enthusiasts are needed first to generate revenue.

Darlene Zurick, who lives along Route 125 in Burnside not far from the park entrance, and whose family has enjoyed riding ATVs above their home for many years, also believes local residents should not be charged to ride on the land.

She believes out-of-town riders don't respect the mountain by littering and often travel at high rates of speed through the village.

"It's already crazy up here on weekends and the park didn't even open yet," she said.

AOAA officials have said the park will, in fact, help bring such illegal riding under control. And most people who travel to such facilities are serious about the hobby and are respectful of the land where they ride, Yorwarth and others have said.

No protest this week

Despite his organization of a protest at the park grounds on May 3, Matt Reidinger, of Coal Township, says it's not accurate to say that he "opposes" the park.

"I am opposed to how the park's board was constructed," he said Tuesday. "I am opposed to their control over public property. They are a small group of unelected individuals enforcing private property rights on public property that the residents themselves have purchased through taxation."

He cites Article One, Section 27 of the state constitution that says, "Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all the people."

Reidinger, 31, who does not own an ATV, said he hopes the park grows the local economy, but lacks confidence that will happen.

"What worries me is that it is being run by government, which is known pretty well for doing one thing: going into debt," he said.

He said as a Coal Township taxpayer he is urges township commissioners to immediately go forward with their proposal to impose a tax on admissions. (See below.)

Reidinger said he can't put a number on how many local residents are opposed to the park, but said, "I do have people approaching me in public who agree completely with me on the issue thanking me for standing up."

His original protest didn't materialize, but he blamed mostly organizational issues. He said no other protests are planned, but that next time he won't alert the media ahead of time; that led to a massive police presence, which he thinks kept a lot of people away.

He said if he would visit the AOAA this weekend, "You will not see me standing in line to buy a pass. That I can guarantee."

Amusement tax

In March, Coal Township commissioners Craig Fetterman, George Zalar and Paul Leshinskie directed solicitor Vincent Rovito to draft an amendment to an amusement tax ordinance that would apply a 5 percent tax to AOAA admissions to help cover the cost of police and emergency responses to the park. Fellow commissioners Gene Welsh and Bernie Rumberger were opposed. Jim Backes, chairman of the AOAA authority, attended a subsequent meeting to lobby against the tax and ask the commissioners to give the park a year or two to get running before they would impose the tax.

No action has been taken since, but it's still a possibility.

"We are still reviewing the amendment," Zalar said Tuesday. "We want to make sure the amusement tax ordinance is written correctly, and I expect it to be in effect by the end of the year, but I only have one vote.

"I wish the AOAA well with its opening day and I hope the park will be successful," he continued. "But my biggest concern is that the AOAA won't end up costing the residents of Coal Township anything. We can't afford to pay for emergency services at the AOAA."

Zalar said some emergency vehicles cost more than $300,000. Driving them into the coal lands puts a strain on the equipment and takes away time that could potentially be used to serve township residents, he said.

Leshinskie previously said it's not fair to increase taxes on residents when there is none on the AOAA.

Backes said after this season and next, the authority will establish a fiscal history on which to base estimated revenues and expenses, including potential donations to Coal Township and other municipal entities. There's also the potential for businesses to open in the township as a result of the AOAA, he said, creating tax revenue that would exceed what the commissioners have proposed.

If the commissioners aren't satisfied after the 2015 season with the AOAA's financial impact, Backes said they should institute a tax. But he doesn't understand the rush to do so in the park's first year. The township's emergency services have responded to accidents in the coal lands for many decades and will continue to do so, he said.

A fundraising ride hosted by the Anthracite Trail Riders (ATR), a local ATV organization, was held April 26 at the AOAA to benefit first responders in Shamokin and Coal and Zerbe townships and offset some of the cost of emergency apparatus and equipment needed to respond to the mountainous area. Backes said similar events will be held in the future.

Limited hunting

Under current rules, hunting will be allowed on AOAA property only from the middle of November to the middle of January. Backes and Northumberland County planning director and authority member Pat Mack said the current hunting policy will remain in effect until further notice.

The master plan for the AOAA originally called for the 342-acre "Alaska site" near Excelsior to remain open year-round, but an amended policy regarding hunting was approved by county commissioners amid controversy in 2012.

"We plan to revisit the hunting policy and there's a chance the Alaska site could be open to hunting year-round in the future," Backes said. "But for now, hunting will only be allowed for that two-month period."

Mack said the planning department deviated from the master plan in regard to hunting at the Alaska site because it wanted all the land designated for the AOAA to be inclusive in the policy governing use.

He previously said the change wasn't done in spite of a lawsuit filed against the commissioners and county by David F. Kaleta, of Shamokin, for banning him from the AOAA property and violating the Sunshine Act.

Northumberland County Judge Charles Saylor granted Kaleta's request for an injunction, which allows access to the AOAA while his lawsuit proceeds.

Kaleta helped rehabilitate former mining land on the Alaska site, removed trash and planted trees and vegetation that attract animals and birds in his volunteer role as president of the former Habitat for Wildlife. He said he fought to keep the Alaska site open for public use for 12 years and noted the only reason it was gated was because of activities such as illegal dumping and ATV riders running through food plots and freshly planted trees.

Kaleta said Monday his lawsuit is still pending in federal court. With that, he reserved comment about the hunting policy and other aspects of the park.

Mack said some exceptions may be made to the hunting policy. One example was this past Saturday when hunters were allowed on the land for spring gobbler season.

He said phase II of the AOAA, which is expected to cost $500,000, will provide a secondary trailhead and parking for non-motorized activities such as hiking, horseback riding, biking and hunting. The trailhead and parking area will be located approximately three-quarters of a mile east of the existing trailhead.

The park is currently closed to campers, equestrians and bicyclists, but Mack said authority members will allow walkers to use the park until trails are developed.

(Staff writers Larry Deklinski and Andy Heintzelman contributed to this article.)