Mixed opinions over OHV park

Nearly 1,000 acres in O’Neals, envisioned by county officials as a haven for motocross and other off-road sports, has sparked growing discussion from rival groups over its proposed location and long-term effects.

Stretching from the northern boundary of Minarets High School to east of Highway 41 across from Black Hawk Lodge, the proposed 956-acre park in recent weeks brought out passionate support from many off-highway vehicle (OHV) riders in the Central Valley.

Bob Wilson, owner of Madera Honda Suzuki, started an online petition Feb. 1 in support of the park, which obtained more than 1,600 signatures by Tuesday.

He said for years, riders have had to drive as far as Tulare to enjoy a safe, legal ride, even while paying required OHV fees and taxes with no benefits to their area.

“This is something that we have been waiting for, for a long time,” Wilson said. “There needs to be a park like this for us, so we can go out and have fun.”

Wayne Pipes, promoter for the California Motorsport Association, added the park could be ideal for bringing in extra revenue from residents in Madera County and elsewhere.

“We would rather spend our money locally,” Pipes said. “We live here, and this is a prime location. People want to come in and run major events, and those thousands and thousands of dollars are being spent elsewhere.”

But as that support gained strength, an opposition group also formed.

The Citizens Against Proposed OHV Park-Madera County group, led by Barbara Bigelow, contends instead the park, and primarily its location near Minarets High School, is a source for major concerns.

During its first community meeting, held Feb. 10 at Minarets High, Bigelow laid out key issues to an audience of around 25.

Among those were traffic issues with entering the park either from Highway 41 or nearby Road 200, potential fire dangers, whether it’s an economically viable idea given operation or other costs, and noise problems both for nearby landowners and students at Minarets High School.

“All of us in O’Neals can hear the way the wind moves,” Cecil Hillerman said. “So I know I’ll be able to hear these vehicles at my house, no matter where it’s happening on all that land.”

Bigelow added that Black Hawk Mountain, contained in the project land, is to her knowledge the only Madera County mountain named in honor of a Native American chief.

“There are major environmental and cultural concerns here,” Bigelow said. “We aren’t against an OHV park, but we’re opposed to this site and think with this big of a project and such a large piece of property, it would make sense to involve the citizens.”

Agreeing to disagree

Though opinions may differ, leaders agree a discussion would be beneficial for each side.

Tom Wheeler, District 5 Madera County Supervisor and supporter of the park, said he would “definitely” speak with Bigelow’s group as plans continue to move forward.

“Absolutely we’ll sit down and talk about it with them,” Wheeler said. “It’s important that we do so.”

“We can make this work and make the neighbors happy,” Pipes said. “Competition is a good thing. There are some good concerns, but there’s a lot of people ready for a park like this and we desperately need it.”

Next steps

The proposed park is far in its infancy stages, and officials say it will likely be years before trail designs or other developments can even begin to take shape.

Grant writer Bill Hayter said beyond Margaret “Peggy” Jamison’s $2.39 million asking price, Caltrans must give approval before the land can be appraised by the county, which may lead to further negotiations on a final sale amount.

If that $2.39 million price remains, the county would pay $311,700, with the rest covered by state and federal grants, Hayter said.

As to noise, traffic, cultural, and all other concerns, Hayter said after appraisals - possibly sometime in August or September - a study must be done including all those issues.

“We’ll definitely want input both from tribes and the public on all of that,” Hayter said. “It’s only once you’ve determine the constraints of a project that you determine a trail system and other work.”