ATVs in the 4th of July parade. Photo by Sue Misao

ATVs in the 4th of July parade. Photo by Sue Misao

Provision in new law could allow riders to use high-speed roads

By Marcy Stamper

A petition to the county commissioners could open 324 additional miles of roads to off-road vehicle (ORV) use in the Methow and elsewhere in the county – including roads with speed limits above 35 miles per hour – escaping the restriction on higher-speed roads because the county’s public hearing is scheduled three days before a new state law takes effect.

A provision in the law allows ORVs (also known as all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs) to be operated on roads with speeds above 35 mph if the roads have already been opened by ordinance before the law goes into effect on Sunday, July 28, according to Verlene Hughes, senior engineer technician with Okanogan County Public Works.

The petition to open virtually all county roads in the Methow Valley and additional sections of roads elsewhere in the county was submitted to the Okanogan County commissioners by the North Central ATV Club. The commissioners have scheduled a public hearing on the request for Thursday, July 25.

The commissioners have scheduled a second hearing that would open all county roads with speed limits of 35 mph or lower to ATVs, as provided by the law, for Monday, July 29.

Many of the roads in the central, northern and eastern part of the county included in the petition are small segments that would connect to routes where ORV use is already authorized by cities and towns, generally completing a loop, according to Hughes.

The state law also allows counties and municipalities to open primitive roads to ATV use. Primitive, unsigned roads in the county have a speed limit of 35 mph, said Hughes.

The state legislation was the product of many years of negotiations between groups that are often on opposite sides of an issue. The law increases opportunities for local jurisdictions to open roads to ATVs but requires registration tags and safety features before the vehicles can be ridden on state and county highways. It was passed by wide margins in the House and Senate in a last-minute vote during the Legislature’s special session.

Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, said he worked for several years with ATV rider groups to draft legislation that would create a mechanism for enforcement to help protect the environment. After the governor signed the bill into law on July 3, he posted a statement on his blog calling the law “a step in reining in the damage caused by irresponsible ATV users and creat[ing] a culture of accountability.”

“Conservation Northwest has sought this new law for years, and I have spent countless hours working with conservationists, responsible ATV leaders, law enforcement, and others to get this point,” wrote Friedman.

Since the law was signed, some Methow residents have reported seeing ATV riders on local roads where they are not permitted, prompting the land-stewardship group Friends of Bear Creek to explore options for additional signage, according to spokesperson Sam Owen.

 

Safety concerns

The Washington State Patrol remains opposed to the law for public-safety reasons, according to Captain Rob Huss. “You’re taking a vehicle never designed or manufactured for roadway use and now introducing that to a public roadway. There is an increased likelihood for injuries and collisions,” he said.

Officers are also concerned that the law’s requirements for safety equipment are not adequate to protect all users of roadways, and that there is no special endorsement or training required for ATV riders, said Huss.

Under the new law, officials of cities and towns and public land managers are responsible for deciding whether to allow ORV use on their roads.

The Winthrop Town Council rejected a request from the ATV Club in November to allow ATV use in town. The Twisp Town Council took public comment on a similar request at three meetings and voted in March to indefinitely table the issue.

“The Forest Service is not planning to comment on the county plan because it deals with county roads under their jurisdiction. But we are continuing our travel management analysis process to determine which roads the Forest Service may open to ATVs,” said Jennifer Zbyszewski, wilderness and facilities program manager for the Methow Valley Ranger District.

The Department of Licensing has “a lot of work to do” to develop a comprehensive implementation plan making ORV licenses available to the public and will not be able to meet the July 28 effective date of the law, according to spokesperson Brad Benfield. The department must develop policies and procedures, create the actual metal registration tags and get them approved by law enforcement, and develop computer programs for administration of the law. Benfield estimated that the process would be complete in March 2014.

The public hearing on the petition to open 324 miles of roads around the county is Thursday, July 25, at 10 a.m. The hearing to open all roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or lower is Monday, July 29, at 3 p.m. Both hearings are in the commissioners’ hearing room in Okanogan.

For more information or to comment on the proposals, contact Hughes at (509) 422-7300 or vhughes@co.okanogan.wa.us.