File photo by Sue Misao
BY MARCY STAMPER
A bill designed to expand opportunities for people to ride off-road vehicles by clarifying rules about opening roads to their use and requiring registration tags and safety features such as headlights and mirrors passed the state House and Senate by wide margins on Saturday (June 29). The last-minute vote came as the legislators were working on the budget in Special Session.
The bill passed by the Legislature keeps roads closed to all-terrain vehicles (ATVs, also known as ORVs) unless counties and towns allow them, rather than requiring the municipalities to restrict ATV use, as in a previous version of the bill.
That version had appeared headed for passage in March but failed to get a vote after efforts to negotiate an exemption for the Methow faltered.
The bill allows people over the age of 16 (an amendment raised the age limit from 13) to operate ORVs on any state highway with a speed limit of 35 mph or lower – if the local municipality opens the road to ATV use. Riders under 16 must be accompanied by a supervising adult.
ORV rider groups are not sure if the legislation would be beneficial to their members and some have opposed additional license and registration requirements, according to Spencer King, president of the North Central ATV Club.
King said he thought the bill was dead and was very surprised that it came up for a vote at the end of June.
Some provisions of the bill depend on the population of counties and towns. In counties with a population over 15,000, such as Okanogan, before ATVs can be operated on roadways, local officials must specifically authorize their use. Counties with a population under 15,000 can designate certain roads as unsuitable for ATVs.
In cities and towns, streets would be closed to ATVs unless local governments authorize their use, but the local rules cannot be less strict than the overall state regulations.
Towns with a population under 3,000 – such as Twisp and Winthrop – can declare streets suitable for ATVs.
Primitive roads and other non-highway roads are also open to ORVs if so designated by local authorities. When driven on these roads, the vehicles do not have to be registered or modified with safety devices, unlike those operated on main highways.
Public land managers are also responsible for deciding whether to allow ORV use on their roads.
The intent of the bill is to “increase opportunities for safe, legal and environmentally acceptable motorized recreation” and to decrease unlawful or environmentally harmful use of the vehicles. It also states that the legislation will stimulate rural economies.
A requirement for licensing and display of metal tags is expected to increase the means to enforce lawful use of ORVs. The initial metal tag will cost $18 and must be renewed every seven years for an additional $2. Law-enforcement officers may issue infractions if there is evidence of unlawful behavior, even if the officer did not witness it.
During the House debate on the bill on Friday night (June 28), a proposal by Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane) to create an exemption for the Methow was withdrawn after Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda) said he believed the bill established good statewide policy and should not single out an individual region.
Before taking a vote, the legislators hailed the bill as an example of collaboration between the off-road recreation community, environmentalists and local governments to craft a successful bill that will minimize conflicts between motorized and non-motorized recreationists.
Although the bill passed with wide bipartisan support – 81 to 11 in the House, and 39 to 5 in the Senate – people who have opposed opening roads in the Methow to ATVs mobilized over the weekend in an effort to persuade the governor to veto the bill.
Erika Stephens, who had to call the sheriff in May to deal with a man who trespassed on her property on his ATV and then lost control of the vehicle, organized an online petition that says, “to allow ATVs access to public roads and state lands in the Methow Valley will greatly compromise the reason why people come to enjoy our valley.”
The petition also questions the adequacy of safety provisions in the legislation. The petition received 70 signatures in less than 48 hours, said Stephens.
Although the bill’s language acknowledges that current rules and regulations for ORVs have been confusing and not standardized across the state, even those familiar with the issue were not clear on the impact if the bill becomes law.
“I printed out a copy and every time I read it, I come up with a different take on it,” said King. “We need clarification on what it means. We might have to sit down with an attorney to understand it – it’s very confusing.”
Gov. Jay Inslee has until July 22 to act on the bill. He can sign it, veto it, or veto selected sections, according to a legislative spokesperson. If it becomes law, it would take effect July 28.