By Marcy Stamper

Okanogan County is proposing a $500 penalty for illegal riding of wheeled all-terrain vehicles (WATVs), with double fines in sensitive environmental areas.

The $500 penalty would be imposed for riding on a county road that is not open to WATVs. If the rider left the county road and operated the WATV in a signed critical area, the penalty would be $1,000, according to Okanogan County Planning Director Perry Huston. The penalty is a moving infraction, similar to a speeding ticket.

The county plans to post signs declaring it off-limits to operate a WATV in designated critical areas, which would include wetlands, meadows and other fragile areas.

“Signs will be erected in areas adjacent to critical areas where the roadway and surrounding topography results in a high likelihood that those riders operating their vehicles illegally will leave the traveled portion of the roadway,” wrote Huston in his environmental review. Specifics of the signs haven’t been finalized.

Operators of WATVs or off-road vehicles would be required to carry a list of county roads open to the vehicles. A list of roads open to the vehicles and a map are available on the Okanogan County home page at www.okanogancounty.org.

The proposed ordinance would apply in unincorporated areas of the county. Cities and towns have separate jurisdiction.

In developing the proposed penalties, the commissioners consulted with the Sheriff’s Office and interested groups, according to the environmental review.

WATVs are a special class of ATV created by the state Legislature in 2013. They have safety features like mirrors and lights and must have a special license. Along with designating the wheeled class of ATVs, the state law created new opportunities for riders, allowing counties and local jurisdictions to open roads of 35 miles per hour (mph) and below to wheeled ATVs.

The former board of Okanogan County commissioners initially opened all county roads of 35 mph and under to WATVs. That decision was challenged in court by environmental groups who said the county first had to assess the potential for environmental harm. The lawsuit said people might be confused by roads with changing speed limits or be tempted to ride the vehicles off-road onto fragile lands or through streams.

The county was ultimately required to rescind the WATV routes. After a road-by-road environmental review last year, the current board of commissioners opened 365 miles of roads in District 3 (which includes Tonasket and Oroville) to wheeled ATVs. Roads adjacent to or leading to environmentally sensitive areas were eliminated from the WATV network.

There were already 300 miles of roads in the county open to other types of off-road vehicles.

The commissioners plan to evaluate roads in Districts 1 (around Omak and southeastern Okanogan County) and 2 (which includes the Methow Valley) for suitability for WATVs.

Huston has issued a preliminary determination that the penalties would not have a significant effect on the environment. The county is soliciting comments on the proposed penalties through June 7. After that, there will be a final environmental determination and a public hearing, but no date has been set.

For more information about the proposed ordinance, go to www.okanogancounty.org/planning and click the box that says “WATV.” Comments may be submitted to Rocky King at rking@co.okanogan.wa.us.