Officials from Northumberland County have changed the name for the proposed recreational area within 6,000 acres of county-owned land in Zerbe, Coal, West Cameron, East Cameron and Mount Carmel townships.

In a press release issued Tuesday, the county announced the name has changed from the "Northumberland County Off-Highway Vehicle Park" to the "Anthracite Outdoor Recreation Area."

"It's time to retire the former name for one that more accurately reflects the county's intentions for the facility," said Pat Mack, director of the county's planning department. "Our desire is to develop a world-class outdoor recreation area that provides a broad spectrum of recreation opportunities,

from off-highway vehicle riding opportunities, to equestrian, mountain biking and hiking opportunities, and hunting opportunities."

The second of three public input sessions has also been scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 19, in the Shamokin Area Junior-Senior High School auditorium.

The press release says the meeting will be held to update the public on the planning process and to gather public input relative to the planning of the facility currently being prepared by Pashek Associates, a landscape architecture and community planning firm from Pittsburgh, in conjunction with Pennoni Associates, Mechanicsburg,

Consultants will present a summary of economic development projections from similar facilities, review a draft of the proposed concept plan for the facility, discuss potential park operations and life safety management system, discuss potential rules, present recommendations regarding the proposed hunting policy for the property, and summarize research finding on fee structures of similar areas.

"The purpose of this meeting is to share with the public a work in progress," said John Buerkle, principal of Pashek Associates. "To date, nothing is set in stone. As a 'work in progress,' facets of the plan are subject to change based on input received from the public. The information being presented at the meeting will indicate the direction the facility is taking."

Attendees will also have the opportunity to provide comments and suggestions to the consultants and to the project study committee.

The master plan is being funded with grants from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation of Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED).

Controversial

The park has had its fair share of controversy since its inception 13 years ago, but plans for the park garnered more attention this year, when the Northumberland County Planning Department scheduled several public meetings.

More than 300 local and out-of-town residents attended the first meeting in July. Much of the feedback was positive, but some shared concerns, including the involvement of local rider enthusiasts and hunters/fishers in the planning process, the liability of the park, difficulty levels, the cost to the local residents, maintenance of current access points, the protection and preservation of local geological sites, the impact on wildlife and the strain on local police departments.

Rich Lahr, of Coal Township, said the commissioners should focus on bringing industry instead of recreation to the area.

"I'm totally against it," said Lahr, who worked at Fleetwood Enterprises, in Paxinos, for 30 years before it closed down. "Is this the best the commissioners can come up with?"

An ATV rider and an avid hunter and sportsman, Lahr argued that local residents have used the land all their lives and the park project will require them to pay for off-road activities they've enjoyed for free.

"We took it for granted and now they're taking away our freedom," he said.

Buerkle, who gave the presentation at July's meeting said that not only would the riders' needs be met, it would also provide secondary benefits, including a boost to the local economy through hotels, garages and restaurants, attracting people from all over the state, east coast and possibly the nation.

"When people travel four to five hours, they're not going to stay an hour. They'll spend the weekend," he said.

Max and Mike Shingara have acquired land in Zerbe Township in anticipation of visitors to the park. The Shingaras plan to develop the former Franz Sigafoos scrap yard into a public storage facility, but hope, if the park is established, to build and rent small cottages to visitors.

"We think that many of the people, residents and tourists alike, will utilize the storage space at first to store their vehicles or other items," Shingara said. "That is the first stage for us to build revenue, and the cottages are down the line."

Dave Miller, president of the Lehigh Valley ATV Association, of Allentown, who attended July's meeting, said the park "is an unprecedented opportunity to revolutionize" off-highway activities.

"We're hungry for additional trail miles," said Miller.

HFW shares support, concerns

David Kaleta, president of Habitat for Wildlife (HFW) - an organization that for much of the past decade has been working to reclaim old coal lands by cleaning up waste, planting trees and flowers and creating habitat for small and big game - attended the July meeting and later raised concerns that the park would be less of a recreation park for a variety of hobbies and more of an off-road vehicle park.

"There was not one slide of non-motorized recreation during the PowerPoint presentation," he said of the meeting. "Not a person riding a horse, hiking, carrying a gun or fishing rod."

HFW is in support of the park, but members believe better representation is needed from the "non-motorized," hunting and conversation communities. Kaleta outlined four concerns - an imbalance of stakeholders on the commission's steering committee, non-motorized recreation possibly taking a backseat, making sure all environmental concerns are addressed and treating the land as more than a "wasteland" - and suggested four seats be added to the 16-seat steering committee. Northumberland County Planning Director Pat Mack said he is hesitant to add additional members, especially since each member already wears several hats and may be well-versed in another aspect of the park. However, if he were to receive a formal request from Kaleta, Mack said he would forward it to the consultant and the decision would rest in his hands.

DCNR provided criteria on who to include in the committee. The 16-member committee excedes DCNR's recommendation of 10 to 12 members.

Overall, Kaleta said, the park would be an asset to the area, Kaleta said.

"These lands have been abused for generations by unregulated mining, illegal dumping and trash burning, underage drinking, poaching and unregulated off-road vehicle use in wetlands, creeks and steep erodible hills," Kaleta said. "We believe that a park with rules, security and enforcement, along with mine reclamation, would be a great benefit to area communities, recreationally, economically and environmentally."

Anyone requiring special accomodations to facilitate participation in Tuesday's meeting is asked to call the Northumberland County Planning Department at 988-4220 to make arrangements.