Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Sled hill crashes to a close

Downhill rush: It was fun while it lasted

By Liz Oakes
The Cincinnati Enquirer

WEST CHESTER TWP. - It seemed like a good idea at the time: turn a gradual slope on the 65-foot mountain of dirt at Freedom's Voice Reserve Park into a man-made mecca for young sledders.

Parker Baisden, 11, gets air as he jumps a mogul at Freedom's Voice Reserve in West Chester Monday afternoon.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
But the day after the season's first major snowfall, as many as 1,500 sledders swarmed "Mount Pisgah," and six people got hurt in sledding accidents. The problem, officials said, began when sledders ventured into fenced-off rocky areas with drop-offs. Parks staff and township police and fire officials were tied up there much of the day, and nearby businesses complained about parking lots being taken over by sledders.

Too much fun led to too much chaos - Butler MetroParks rangers closed down the hill about 2 p.m. after five teens were taken to hospitals within about an hour. Injuries included banged-up ribs, shoulders, heads, legs and backs.

The hill is just a few feet shorter than the Plunge, a former 70-foot water slide at Paramount's Kings Island.

Now, township officials, Butler County parks representatives and local emergency workers plan to meet this week to figure out what to do next time there's a heavy snow.

At dusk, sledders were still walking in, despite a MetroParks ranger posted to turn away people driving in. Roads leading into the park were also locked and barricaded, said Mike Muska, MetroParks director.

"I'm kind of bummed out. I don't want to leave," said Becky Crabtree, 15, a freshman at Mason High School, echoing the sentiment of other sledders who left only reluctantly after a township police officer walked around the hill to enforce the closure.

"It's going to be tough to keep everybody out," Muska said. "We're not prepared to have staff out there 24 hours a day. For that matter, the township isn't, either."

Judi Carter, assistant township administrator, said West Chester got more than a dozen calls from businesses along Cox Road, complaining about parking.

"The excess parking is using their lots, disrupting their customers," she said at the park, where MetroParks and township officials huddled to talk about 3 p.m. after the hill was closed.

The hill was created from the stockpile of soil excavated last summer when a 30-acre lake was developed. Park planners decided to contour the soil, particularly the north side facing Hamilton-Mason Road, specifically for sledding.

But many on the hill Monday ignored the signs and fencing, opting to sled and snowboard down the steep, rocky eastern side where the snow was less muddy, officials said.

Sledders were also going down the western side facing Cox Road, where fencing and cars were safety threats. In addition, a heavy fog prevented sledders from seeing the bottom of the hill.

Sledders were at the hill as early as 9 a.m..

The 200-acre Butler County park is part of the former Voice of America site, and is next to West Chester Township's Voice of America Park. The hill's 700,000 cubic yards of dirt will eventually become fill in construction of an new Interstate 75 interchange in Liberty Township, but that is likely years away, West Chester officials said.

In the meantime, Muska said MetroParks is already planning to put sturdier signs and fencing up. Snow is in the forecast, but only an inch or so, which won't be enough to reopen the hill, he said.

Sooner or later, sledders said, they'll return.

"We are so coming back," said Katie Lizzio, 15, of Mason.


Steve Kemme, Sue Kiesewetter and Erica Solvig contributed.

E-mail loakes@enquirer.com

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