Developer Plans Road Course Near Appalachian Trail

Wed February 26, 2003 - National Edition

KUNKLETOWN (AP) For more than a decade, Richard Muller Jr. has dreamed of building a private country club for people who desire to drive their Porsches, BMWs and other high-performance cars at top speed — legally.

His first three attempts stalled, but Muller, a 58-year-old businessman and adrenaline junkie who used to own a Ferrari, has finally gotten the engine to turn over.

Construction could begin as early as spring on a twisting 2.8-mi. road course designed to handle speeds of 150 mph or more — a place where “you and your car can safely push the laws of physics and your abilities,” according to Muller’s promotional literature.

You’d also come within a half-mile of the Appalachian Trail. And that’s much too close for the hikers, environmentalists and neighbors who are suing to stop the Alpine Motorsports Club.

They claim engine and tire noise will wreck the solitude of the trail, a portion of which runs along the spine of Blue Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania. They also say the country club will pollute a nearby trout stream, threaten wildlife, deforest the mountainside, disrupt bird migrations and decrease property values.

Their lawsuit in Monroe County Court says the Appalachian Trail Act — a 25-year-old state law that empowers municipalities to take action to “preserve the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the trail” — forbids the development.

Among the plaintiffs are Marion and Frank O’Donnell, who say the track would come within 260 ft. of their house.

“It will take our peace and quiet and it’s one of the last spots in Monroe County that hasn’t been destroyed yet,” said Marion O’Donnell, 65, a retired bookkeeper who often walks the fields and woodlands of her 30-acre property.

The Alpine Motorsports Club would be built on a 341-acre tract at the base of Blue Mountain, a part of the rugged Kittatinny Ridge that runs through New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and is a major flyway for hawks and other birds during the fall and spring migrations.

Plans for the $15-million resort in Eldred Township include a clubhouse, outdoor pool, gas pumps, garage, car wash, and tennis, basketball and volleyball courts. Muller has already sold memberships that range from $1,150 to $3,250 per year. He’s hoping to sign up 2,000 members, but said he needs half that to break even.

The developer and his critics agree that the club wouldn’t be visible from the Appalachian Trail. But their dispute touches on nearly every other issue, especially noise.

Muller’s experts contend the track would increase noise along the Appalachian Trail by a modest five decibels. But other experts hired by the Blue Mountain Preservation Association, the group to which the O’Donnells belong, call that a gross underestimation.

Muller pointed out that the eastern Pennsylvania portion of the trail isn’t exactly a wilderness area. Near the proposed club, for example, the trail crosses major highways and a ski area.

But Brian King, a spokesman for the Appalachian Trail Conference, said hikers deserve as much solitude as the trail can afford. “If they want [noise], they can walk down the median of an interstate for 2,000 miles,” he said.

The legal battle could hinge on a judge’s interpretation of the Appalachian Trail Act. The law has rarely, if ever, been used by the 54 Pennsylvania municipalities through which the trail runs, and its language is open to interpretation.

Though Blue Mountain lawyer Charles Elliott said the act requires towns to block development near the trail, lawyers for Alpine Motorsports and Eldred Township say it merely allows municipalities to act.

The township’s Board of Supervisors gave preliminary approval to the club in November, with a final vote scheduled within the next few months. Their solicitor, Wieslaw Niemoczynski, said they had little choice, because the township has no zoning ordinance.

That’s cold comfort to Eldred Township resident Carl Rush, 52, who lives with his wife Judy in a ranch home on six wooded acres at the base of Blue Mountain, which rises 1,000 ft. from the valley floor.

“If you get a racetrack in here, you’ll hear it all day, every day, seven days a week,” Rush said.

But former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, who was hired as a lobbyist for Alpine Motorsports, said the club will spur economic development in the area and boost local tax revenues.

“This is a benign, environmentally friendly project,” said Singel, who has secured for Muller up to $2 million in state grants, loans and tax incentives. Muller has “gone out of [his] way to address even the most off-the-wall criticism,” Singel said.

Muller quit the family business in 1991 so he could work on this project full time. He was rejected by three municipalities in Berks County, and he once refunded $350,000 in deposits to would-be club members.

Now that he’s so close to realizing his dream, said Muller, “it’s a shame that this small group of people is constantly harping on the same issues that we’ve addressed over the past 18 months at least a dozen times each.”