By Ann McCreary

A proposed ordinance that would allow all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) on most Okanogan County roads appears headed toward adoption, after county commissioners Monday denied an appeal filed by two environmental organizations.

The Methow Valley Citizens’ Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest appealed an environmental determination by the county’s planning director, who found the proposed ATV ordinance would have no significant impacts.

Commissioners unanimously denied the appeal after an administrative hearing, which was followed by a public hearing.  After hearing more than 15 speakers on both sides of the question, commissioners said they would consider adoption of the ordinance on Monday (June 23) after some revisions have been made.

Melanie Rowland, an attorney representing MVCC and Conservation Northwest, said the next step for the appellants would be to file a lawsuit in Okanogan County Superior Court, although that action would need to be approved by the boards of both organizations.

Okanogan County’s ordinance would allow ATVs with required safety upgrades to use 597 additional miles of county roads, both paved and unpaved, with speed limits of 35 miles per hour or lower.  Some road sections run for miles, others are less than a mile. There are already 336 miles of county roads open to ATVs.

In a State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review of the ordinance, county Planning Director Perry Huston determined that because the  roads are already used by cars and trucks, there would be no significant environmental impact from allowing ATVs on them as well.

The appellants, however, argued that ATVs aren’t the same as other vehicles because they are intended for off-road use and are therefore likely to leave the roadway and cause environmental damage in areas not open to ATVs.

Studies offered

In their appeal and at the hearing, appellants provided numerous studies to back their contention that illegal off-road riding is widespread.

Appellants said the county failed to meet SEPA requirements by not considering the “reasonable probability” that more than moderate environmental impacts would result from the ATV ordinance, Rowland said in a statement to county commissioners.

“The county … has failed to do even the most basic analysis of which roads should — and should not — be opened to ATV use, based on environmental factors,” Rowland said.

“Assuming that ATVs are the same as other vehicles and refusing to consider the overwhelming evidence of probable environmental impacts from increased ATV road access and resulting use off-road are two fatal flaws that render the SEPA checklist and determination of non-significant in this matter unlawful,” Rowland said.

She said commissioners should either complete an environmental impact statement before considering the ordinance, or revise the ordinance “to eliminate roads that provide access to public lands and other roads unsuitable for ATVs.”

Huston said the appeal of his SEPA determination “is premised on the assumption that ATV operators will ignore all or most regulation (and that) the county failed to consider the likelihood that widespread damage to the environment would result from illegal ATV use.”

The assumption that ATV riders will operate in an unlawful manner or in environmentally sensitive areas is “speculative” and “unsubstantiated,” said Huston in a report to commissioners.

The appeal did not offer “specific statistics or other analysis quantifying those concerns, he said.

Rowland said it is the county’s job to quantify likely effects through an EIS, and that evidence of illegal riding was noted in comments submitted by wildlife officials, the Colville tribes and others.

“The preparation of an EIS that attempts to quantify this sort of speculative impacts would be a daunting if not impossible task and would clearly be for the purpose of rendering the review so cumbersome and/or expensive that the proponent would simply abandon the…proposal as untenable,” Huston said.

 “I will not be lured into the ditch,” said Commissioner Jim DeTro, recommending the commission deny the appeal. “Did we do the SEPA correctly, do the checklist correctly, follow legislative intent? The answer in my mind to all these is yes.”

A resolution denying the appeal will be drawn up for commissioners to sign next week.

Familiar discussion

A public hearing on the proposed ordinance following the appeal hearing drew familiar arguments both in favor and opposed to ATVs on public roads.  Proponents cited more fuel-efficient transportation; attracting visitors to the county to benefit the economy; providing a way for elderly or disabled people to recreate outdoors; and increasing access to trails.

“I would like to see more routes in the Twisp River drainage to connect to trailheads,” said Bill Ford, a Twisp River Road resident. “Opponents believe in the myth of the Methow Valley being non-motorized. If the county is going to depend on the tourism industry, we should not discriminate against a legitimate industry. I want the Methow Valley to be treated the same as the rest of the county,” Ford said.

Opponents cited concerns including environmental damage from ATVs ridden in sensitive environmental areas; trespassing by ATV riders on private and public lands; safety issues associated with vehicles intended for off-road use being ridden on pavement; and costs related to additional law enforcement and signage.

There could also be potential costs related to liability of municipalities that allow people to ride ATVs in their jurisdiction, said Isabelle Spohn of Twisp.

Spohn submitted documents from the Municipal Research and Services Center provided to the town of Twisp regarding potential liability. A legal opinion stated that if a person operating an ATV on a city street were struck by a vehicle and seriously hurt, the city could be sued by the injured party, with an allegation that the road designated by the city for ATV use was not suitable.

Spohn also submitted a petition signed by 67 business owners in Twisp opposing ATVs on town streets. “The chances of allowing ATVs in Twisp are not good,” she said.

Commissioners directed staff to revise the ordinance to remove roads on the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation from the ordinance. Tribal law restricts ATV use to tribal members and their relatives, and the Colvilles opposed including roads on the reservation in the ordinance.

The public hearing on the ordinance was continued until Monday at 3 p.m., although no further public testimony will be considered.