Park District to Start Pilot Snowmobiling Program
January 28, 2016 by

Observatory Park permits issued first come, first serve

Until now, snowmobiles in county parks were prohibited. But Geauga Park District Executive Director John Oros believes snowmobiles should be accommodated in one of the parks.

“So what I’m proposing to do is move forward a first-year trial offering at one park — one park only — and that is Observatory Park on Saturdays and Sundays only, from 12 to 5,” Oros told park commissioners at their Jan. 12 board meeting.

It would be by permit only, Oros said, adding he would meet with the president of one of the local snowmobile clubs in Montville Township.

And, while Park Commissioner Bill Gertz went on record as opposing the program, Oros told the board he has the authority to issue special use permits, so a vote was not required.

Observatory Park is an 1,100-acre park that was purchased in 2003. Recognized by astronomers as one of the few regions left in Northeast Ohio that has not yet been affected by light pollution, it is one of only five parks in the country and eight in the world to receive a Dark Sky Park designation from the International Dark-Sky Association.

“What is appealing to this, and getting people involved in our parks, is this local club is willing to assist with trail maintenance, even outside of snowmobile use,” Oros said, pointing out that both snowmobiles and ATVs are prohibited in the park district’s rules and regulations.

“One thing that is allowed in our rules and regulations is the opportunity for me, as the executive director, to issues special use permits. So, that’s how we would go about this,” he explained. “It would be similar to our hunting program.”

Newly appointed Park Commissioner Jackie Dottore asked Oros if “significant evaluations” would be done at the end of the season to determine the pros and cons of the program.

Oros assured the board “after action” reports would be prepared to evaluate the program.

Len Barker, who recently was appointed to complete a two-year term on the board, asked if there should be an age limit on people operating snowmobiles.

“Would they have to get certified to use the parks to do that?” he asked Oros.

While Oros said he could not speak to the certification issue, he explained if the board was open to the idea, then he would meet with the president of Ohio State Snowmobile Association and formulate a plan.

It is hoped the trial offering would begin the first Saturday in February, weather permitting, he said.

Troy Township resident Ed Buckles objected from the audience, stating Oros’ proposal was discussed at the December board meeting, before Dottore and Barker were even appointed.

He added the proposal was not even on the Jan. 12 meeting agenda.

“Now you’re proposing to implement it before the next board meeting,” Buckles said. “This is sandbagging and I’m very, very upset by that.”

Oros said he would be working with the Montville Highlanders, the local snowmobiling group.

“We would not exceed any more than about 30 or 40 permits,” he explained. “It would be limited to one trail.”

The number of permits proposed is based on the number of families associated with the Montville Highlanders group, added Oros, and the permits would be issued on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Buckles again interrupted Oros and accused him of raising the issue by surprise and unfairly.

“It was specifically rejected by the survey,” said Buckles, referring to a 2015 community survey the park district conducted.

Replied Oros, “Mr. Buckles, you do not have the floor.”

Gertz said he was in “direct opposition” to the trial offering.

“I’ve been through this before. It seems to me it’s a great deal like our president limiting permits for the good people,” he said. “Well, that’s fine, but you know, it’s not the good people you have to worry about, because when that thing closes at midnight or whatever, you’re going to have all kinds of people through there.”

Gertz said he has had snowmobilers on his property at 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. in the morning, cutting down trees to make the trails better.

“You can’t police them. I feel sorry for the rangers that they’re going to have to do this. I am not in favor of this whatsoever,” he said, to applause from the audience.

In response to a question from Dottore, Oros said he has looked at snowmobiling programs offered in other parks and counties, such as Punderson State Park in Newbury Township and the Western Reserve Greenway trail in Ashtabula County, and would replicate those programs.

Oros told park commissioners similar opposition occurred when the park district began its hunting program in 2005 for wildlife management.

“I believe we should be afforded as a staff an opportunity to implement this pilot program,” said Oros. “I believe this is an opportunity for families to get out in a park when there’s enough snowpack and enjoy this park.”

Violators would be issued an initial warning or citation, depending on the circumstance.

Biologist Sandy Buckles, also of Troy Township, asked Oros if park district naturalists had issued an environmental impact statement about the proposed pilot program.

“I would propose that we don’t need to open up the floor to pubic input,” Oros responded.

Another audience member told Gertz he could make a motion to prohibit the program.

“I’m not sure that’s appropriate at this time,” Gertz said. “When the time comes up, I’ll be glad to do it.”

Dottore added, “In the spirit of being proactive and not reactive, I would say that I am for a trial basis only.”

Barker concurred with Dottore.

Chardon Township resident Kathryn Hanratty, president of Protect Geauga Parks, accused Oros of “overstepping” his authority and taking advantage of new board members who are “not versed in what they’re allowed to do and what they’re not allowed to do.”

The board then adjourned into executive session to discuss personnel matters.

There are five snowmobile clubs in Geauga County, according to the Ohio State Snowmobile Association: Geauga West Snowmobile Club (Bainbridge Township), Newbury Snowmobile Club, Thompson Ledge Runners, Parkman Polar Bears and Montville Highlanders.

A telephone call to Chip Hofstetter, of the Montville Highlands, was not returned as of deadline Tuesday.