By Don Nelson

The Winthrop Town Council, split 2-2 on the question of whether to allow all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) on town streets, decided at its meeting last week to hold off a final vote until the fifth council member could be present.

But they shortly learned that long-time council member and former mayor Mort Banasky, who was not at last week’s meeting, had earlier passed away in her home.

Mayor Sue Langdalen, who could have cast the tie-breaking vote but instead supported waiting for Banasky to be present, said this week that the council will discuss how to replace Banasky at its Sept. 3 meeting. Langdalen said it’s possible the council will consider holding off on a replacement because town budget discussions are about to begin, and it would be difficult for a new member to get up to speed quickly.

Council members Mike Strulic and Rick Northcott voted yes on a motion to direct the town staff to draw up an ordinance that would allows ATVS in town, while council members Gaile Bryant-Cannon and Jessica Sheehan voted no. The vote came after the council allowed members of the public to comment, although the meeting was not a formal public hearing on the ATV issue. The comments, pro and con, echoed those offered at earlier hearings on the same topic.

While the state Legislature has enacted a new law defining how ATVs must be operated, and the Okanogan County commissioners have adopted an ordinance opening hundreds of miles of roads to ATV use, it is still up to the individual towns whether to allow the vehicles on their streets. Twisp has not adopted such an ordinance.

Strulic and Northcott said they both had heard enough testimony and information to support ATV usage in town. “We have to address it,” Northcott said. Strulic said he believes the ATV question is about individual freedom and treating everyone fairly.

Bryant-Cannon said that it “makes no sense” to allow ATVs in town when the vehicles can’t, as a practical matter, enter Winthrop from any direction because they are prohibited on state or county roads with a speed limit of more than 35 miles per hour. All of the roads into Winthrop have a higher speed limit where they enter the town, except for about a third of a mile of West Chewuch Road before it encounters the town limits.

Sheehan said she is not opposed to ATVs in town “in the long run,” but said she too would “like to let a little more of the dust settle.”

Challenge in court

There is some legal uncertainty about the county commissioners’ action opening up more county roads to ATV use. The county’s ordinance has been challenged in a lawsuit filed by Conservation Northwest and the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC), and a hearing is scheduled on Oct. 30 before Okanogan County Superior Court Judge Chris Culp. That means the ordinance could be invalidated if the MVCC and Conservation Northwest prevail in court, re-opening the question of ATV access throughout the county.

Country Commissioner Ray Campbell, who attended the council meeting, said the county is continuing to look at ways to connect the towns for ATV operators, and to open U.S. Forest Service roads for more ATV use.

Although there was some council discussion of a “probationary period” to assess the impact of ATVs on town streets, town clerk Michelle Gaines said that a temporary ordinance would probably not be workable. She said an ordinance, once adopted, can later be repealed.

Langdalen said the ATV question will be on the councils’ Sept. 3 agenda. At last week’s meeting, she indicated that she was inclined to support the motion to allow ATVs, but this week Langdalen did not say how she intends to vote if the question is called at the Sept. 3 meeting.