Jeff Clayton says he was trying to build a mountain bike trail to promote healthy lifestyles. State officials do not see it that way.
An investigation by Delaware State Park Rangers into an illegal bike trail in Cape Henlopen State Park ended in the arrest and conviction of Clayton on multiple criminal charges.
Clayton, 51, of Rehoboth Beach pleaded guilty to three counts of illegal removal, cutting or injuring trees and shrubs, illegal use of a park area for activity other than intended and illegal altering of park property. Clayton was arraigned at Court 2 in Rehoboth Beach and fined $1,140 including restitution and court costs. He was also ordered to stay away from all state parks for one year.
Rangers found a single-track mountain bike trail in the park near the Junction and Breakwater Trail. Social media posts about the development and construction of the trail led park rangers to Clayton. Park officials estimate that approximately two acres of natural area in the park were disturbed to build almost three miles of trail. Four rudimentary bridges in wetland areas also were found over approximately a half-mile of the illegal trail.
The trail is located between the Tanger Outlets on the northbound side of Route 1 and the Junction and Breakwater Trail.
“Creating your own private playground is not acceptable on state park lands,” said Chief Wayne Kline of Delaware Natural Resources Police. “We manage parks for use by all people.”
Kline said this is the first arrest he is aware of someone building an illegal trail. He said the investigation started last fall, but Clayton was not arrested until recently because he does not live in the area during the winter. Clayton, who owns Endeavor Trading in Rehoboth Beach, said he was first contacted by park rangers in September, the same night a column about his trail was published in the Cape Gazette.
Clayton, who lives on Holland Glade Road, said the trail has been there for many years. He started work to improve it last spring with help from a few volunteers, including some young people.
Clayton admits he knew state park officials would not endorse the trail. “I thought if we did a good job, cleaned up the area and I got enough people to back it, the state would look at it more seriously,” he said. “The Delaware way is to do it yourself.
“I wasn't the first one there or the first one to use it, but I did promote it. I wanted to get kids out from in front of TV sets and promote tourism to attract people who live healthy lifestyles,” he said.
Clayton said based on how long it takes to get state trail projects complete and how much money they cost, he thought building a trail for no money would be heralded. He said he had plans to expand the trail to cover up to eight miles.
He said he underestimated how seriously state officials would respond. “I was told they wanted to do more and charge me with felonies,” he said.
Clayton said he's been charged with cutting down 1,000 trees. “We never even took an ax out there to do work,” he said. “We started by dragging our feet to clear leaves off the trail. We may have removed about 25 saplings.”
Clayton said he's at a loss why park officials clamped down on him while they ignore other issues in the same area. He said that section of the park is a location for homeless camps. “There are four active homeless camps there most times,” he said.
He's complained to state officials about the camps as well as prostitution taking place at the park's Wolfe Neck trailhead. “I've been treated with hostility when I bring it up,” he said.
Mike Tyler of Lewes, a well-known cycling advocate, has experience with riding in the wooded areas of the park. He said he hoped to start discussions with state park staff this summer to look at the creation of a single-track trail in the park. “We wanted to do it the right way. I think this is a setback,” Tyler said. “I hope this doesn't close the door.”
Tyler said since he was threatened with arrest several years ago, he has not returned to ride his bike off the park's established trails.
The only public single-track mountain bike trails in the state are in New Castle County's White Clay Creek State Park.
For the next year, Clayton cannot take his daily ride to work on the Junction and Breakwater Trail. “If I get caught in the park, I face 10 days in prison,” he said.