File photo by Sue Misao

File photo by Sue Misao

By Marcy Stamper

By opening county roads to off-road vehicles (ORVs), the Okanogan County commissioners are exercising their constitutional right to make and enforce local laws, according to legal documents filed Sept. 3 in response to a lawsuit brought against the county by two environmental organizations.

The county also contends that the plaintiffs “misleadingly” omitted key language from the state ORV law, which they say provides latitude to the county to open roads based on connections to ORV recreational facilities.

The full definition in state law is as follows: “ORV recreation facilities’ include, but are not limited to, ORV trails, trailheads, campgrounds, ORV sports parks, and ORV use areas, designated for ORV use by the managing authority that are intended primarily for ORV recreational users.” (The county italicized the words that were omitted.)

“Even absent the broad language making clear this is a non-exclusive list, the term ‘ORV trail’ is sufficiently broad to cover the roads that were opened,” wrote Okanogan County Civil Deputy Prosecutor Steve Bozarth.

In a complaint filed Aug. 14, the Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest challenged two ordinances passed at the end of July by the county commissioners. The first ordinance opened 635 miles of roads across the county, some with speed limits up to 50 miles per hour (mph), to ORVs. The second ordinance, passed four days later – one day after a new state law took effect – opened all county roads with speed limits of 35 mph or lower to ORVs (also called all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs). That ordinance also declared that all roads opened previously would remain open to ATVs.

The environmental groups’ complaint has three main contentions:

•  The commissioners acted illegally by opening the first group of roads because the state law in effect at the time required a connection to an ORV/ATV recreation facility.

• The new state law caps the speed limit for roads eligible for ATVs at 35 mph.

• The commissioners do not have the authority to keep these roads open to ATVs because the new law sets a cut-off date of Jan. 1 – not July – for a road’s status to be grandfathered in.

While acknowledging that the law allows roads up to 35 mph to be opened to ATVs, the plaintiffs say the commissioners were required to evaluate conditions on individual roads (including whether the speed limit varies) and notify people of the potential environmental impact of allowing ATVs to use them, said Melanie Rowland, an MVCC board member.

In the county’s response, Bozarth states that the plaintiffs have not shown they have been harmed by the opening of these roads. Because the vehicles need to be outfitted with safety equipment and to obtain a special permit that is not yet available from the Department of Licensing, the newly opened roadways are in effect still off limits to ATV riders.

The county claims that the plaintiffs do not have standing to bring the lawsuit and that they have not exhausted all administrative remedies. Bozarth did not return calls seeking details about the other available remedies or lack of standing.

The remainder of the county’s response denies the bulk of the plaintiffs’ complaint because the county has no way of knowing if plaintiffs’ allegations are true.

“We’re glad the county has answered and that we can now move forward,” said Rowland.