NEWBURYPORT — The Parks Commission is expected to hear a proposal on Thursday from a local seventh-grader who would like to install a dirt bike path on city land on March’s Hill.
The bike path, called a “pump track,” would consist of a series of bends and turns that maximize momentum so there is little need for pedaling.
But while the proposal by Nock Middle School student Dante Chabot has plenty of supporters, it also has its share of opponents – most of them homeowners who live on nearby Coffins Court.
The homeowners have expressed their concerns – and in a handful of cases, anger – toward teenagers who have been riding their bikes on a nearby network of dirt trails and jumps, some of which come close to at least one Coffins Court home.
City Parks Director Lise Reid said Chabot’s proposal would take advantage of land belonging to the Parks and Water departments. The track would not be connected to current trails, she added.
“That’s all they are considering,” Reid said.
Chabot’s father, Jamie Chabot, said the proposal started as a school project that evolved into what he called a great civics lesson for his son.
“I’m very proud of him,” he said.
Parks Commissioner Paul Swindlehurst said he visited the proposed site earlier in the week after four residents reached out to him about the issue, two for and two against. Asked how he felt about the proposal, Swindlehurst declined to answer.
“I don’t want to do that in front of the meeting,” Swindlehurst said.
Chabot has been aided by other middle schoolers and high school students, many of whom form the roughly 15 to 20 bikers who frequent the trails.
For years, March’s Hill has been one of the city’s go-to spots for sledding.
In 2017, a section was bulldozed to make way for a new section of the Clipper City Rail Trail. Well before that, according to Reid, area youths created a series of bike trails behind the hill.
The 17-acre parcel was named for the March family, who came to Newbury in the mid-17 century and owned it for multiple generations. The land later became part of Newburyport when it broke off from Newbury.
High Street resident Claire DeWindt purchased March’s Hill and then handed it over to the city in 1954. Her intention was to ensure that Newburyport and Newbury children had a place to play.
Since then, the property has been overseen by the Parks Department, which sanctioned the bike trails, saying they were in line with what March’s Hill was all about, according to Reid.
Paul Recinos of Coffins Court said the new track would only exacerbate issues caused by the current tracks, including what he called site maintenance, supervision and noise. He said there are many neighbors who share his concern and that they were to meet to discuss the issue.
“Currently the noise is usually only an issue on weekends and after school, but we know from past experiences that it will only worsen once summer vacation begins,” Recinos wrote in a letter to Reid on May 16. “March’s Hill is a city treasure that should be enjoyed by all but to the detriment of none.”
Recinos; his wife, Marjorie Recinos; and others have said that over the last few years, the teens have accelerated the erosion and changed the scope of the trails so that they now almost touch homes.
In a letter to The Daily News on May 25, the Recinoses and others wrote that the forest has been hacked apart, trees cut down and land bulldozed.
During a follow-up phone interview, Paul Recinos said he opposed the new track, saying the site would attract more young people from out of town who would park on an already-crowded Coffins Court.
Jamie Chabot shot down the parking concern, saying the bikers are between 10 and 15 years old, many of whom ride miles on their bikes to get there. He also said he found it quite unlikely that they bulldozed the area.
“It’s ridiculous, they just don’t want it next to their backyard,” Jamie Chabot said. “They don’t agree with it but it’s not their land.”
Coffins Court resident Cheryl Smith denied she opposed the idea because it was close to her property. Instead, she said the pump track would be better off in an open area like what is found in the city’s industrial park.
As for the current trails, Smith said they have become larger, dirtier and more dangerous.
“I think it’s an ill-conceived idea that got out of control,” Smith said.
Reid said the Parks Department has cut down trees but said they were either invasive species or dying. Reid added that parks manager Michael Hennessy recently expressed confidence that the teens are not harming the environment.
Over the last few months, Recinoses have been waging a campaign against the proposal and the current tracks, sending emails to Reid, Mayor Sean Reardon and others. In emails provided by the couple, Reardon and Reid both said the bikers have permission from the Parks Department to use the trails and maintain them.
“I’m told the Park Department granted the kids permission to build bike trails in an existing park,” Reardon wrote in an email May 11. The bike trails are open to anyone. My office has received multiple positive emails about this endeavor.”
Among them voicing support for the bikers is Alicia Tague, whose son Thijs has been teaming up with Chabot to build the pump track.
“This is so incredibly enriching for the kids and this is all organic,” Tague said in a phone interview. “Kids have a real hard time with free play. Everything is structured, time is mapped out. I think what’s happening there is rare.”
Tague admitted there has been some tension between teens and one or two neighbors with one neighbor going as far as yelling at them. But she said what the teens have been doing behind March’s Hill is far better than what was happening before the trails existed when the drinking of alcohol was rampant and there were several homeless people living in tents.
Smith, who has lived near March’s Hill for more than 30 years, agreed that there used to be a tent city back there but called it a false argument, saying one cannot look at the past.
“That’s not the issue now,” Smith said.
Also, she said, there are many more eyes on March’s Hill today and that those people are “appalled” with unseemly bike trails.
Dave Rogers is a reporter with the Daily News of Newburyport. Email him at: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @drogers41008.