City Council: ‘Ultimate goal’ is to build a legal ATV park in Philly

Philadelphia’s ATV argument raged on during a City Council committee hearing this afternoon considering legislation further penalizing and restricting the use of the off-road vehicles within city limits. At the same time, council members seemed to reach the consensus that a legal riding outlet is a necessary companion to the stepped-up enforcement.

“Ultimately, what this gathering has proved to me is that we are really preaching to the choir,” bill sponsor Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown said, noting that the majority of the participants shared the same objective. “Our ultimate goal is finding non-public, non-park land … where we can create an ATV park.” A surprisingly diverse group of people appeared to support that goal, including a Yamaha Corporation official, a retired New Jersey police captain and even a pedestrian who lost her leg when she was struck by an ATV in West Philadelphia.

“Motorcycles and ATVs are tools we’ve used for the past 15 years to keep kids in Egg Harbor, who are from as far away as Pennsylvania, from drugs and gang violence,” said retired police Capt. Hector Tavarez. He said that when the off-road vehicle problem peaked in his town about 16 years ago, they instituted a police Off-Road Unit to increase enforcement, a youth diversion program for first-time offenders and a dedicated 30-acre ATV park, which now also houses a church, police training facility, U.S. Air Force auxiliary patrol and various extracurricular clubs and sports leagues. “The most injuries we have in any of our programs is cheerleading, by far,” Tavarez said. “We have more injuries in one year of cheerleading than we’ve had in 15 years of motorcycles, ATVs and side-by-sides.”

But not everyone was as supportive of the idea – a number of officials with Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration testified against the construction of an ATV park in the city. “We simply do not have the public space here in Philadelphia to allow the safe operation of these vehicles and create a buffer to prevent community and environmental disruptions,” Deputy Mayor Michael DiBerardinis said, adding that the cost would amount to 12 percent of the annual municipal operating budget and that the city has already spent over $250,000 repairing ATV damage to park lands over the past several years. After some prodding, he conceded that his opinion only extends to Parks and Recreation-owned land. “If the private sector is willing to work with these groups to create a viable operation, that makes sense,” he said.

Unlikely show of support

In one shocker, West Philadelphia resident Marie Parham, who lost her leg in 1994 when she was struck by an ATV as it blew through a red light at the intersection of 52nd Street and Haverford Avenue, came with her family to discuss the grave need for a legal outlet.

“I think there should be laws to protect the riders of the vehicles,” Parham’s daughter Ava McKee said. “There should be places where they can ride legally and they shouldn’t be places where they have to ride miles and miles and miles to do it – they should be convenient for urban riders.”

Parham’s niece Lynne Walker agreed. “Give them someplace to ride,” she pleaded. “I don’t want them to ride on the street. I don’t want them to ride on the pavement. I get nervous when they’re riding behind me. I pull to the side of the street like it’s an emergency vehicle, because I’ve seen what they’ve done.”

Motorized myths

Some of the myths about the impossibility of creating an urban ATV park that were dispelled today include:

– There is not enough space in Philadelphia for a facility. “Any space is a good space, if it’s 20 acres, 30 acres or 40 acres,” said Yamaha Northeast Regional Business Manager Kevin DeCew. “It doesn’t take much to build an area, it just takes the proper maintenance and funding.” Off-road vehicle park Burnt Mills in Northeastern Pennsylvania, for example, is just five square miles.

– Off-road vehicles are too noisy for urban use. “We have a sound requirement that’s strictly enforced,” Tavarez said. “But most of the vehicles out there today can be made to be extremely quiet and what I have discovered is it’s a lack of education on [the riders’] part – they seem to think if they’re louder, they’re faster.” He said that he finds a little bit of schooling about the negative impact of the noise goes a long way with the riders.

– The cost of an ATV park would be insurmountable. To the contrary, many testified about the money a park would bring into the city, from out-of-state riders spending dollars at surrounding concessions to off-road vehicle sanctioning organizations that would jump at the chance to hold competitions and sponsor riders. “Studies show that well-designed recreational trails improve neighboring property values, result in significant expenditures on the related recreational equipment and activity and bring tourists into the community,” Special Vehicle Institute of America Vice President Thomas Yager said in a statement of support. “OHV recreation contributes billions of dollars to state and local economies.”

Many vehicle manufacturers also offer financial assistance – Yamaha alone has donated over $2 million since 2008 to build facilities in 39 states, including four in Pennsylvania – and funds are also available from the Pennsylvania Recreational Trail Program. As far as liability insurance, most tracks have waivers that shift the majority of the risk onto the rider.

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