Proposal includes signs where vehicles are prohibited
As Okanogan County considers opening another 91 miles of roads to wheeled all-terrain vehicles (WATVs), county officials are also working to devise signs to mark roads and fragile environmental areas off-limits to the vehicles.
After reviewing comments from the public and land-management agencies about another network of roads, primarily in District 1 (from Omak to Brewster), that would be suitable for WATVs, the county amended the list to eliminate more than 150 miles of roads where there is concern about the potential for environmental damage and illegal riding.
The county is proposing ways to minimize potential environmental impacts from WATVs, both through road selection and signage. Eliminated from the current list are any roads where riders might be tempted to leave the roadway and ride illegally in wetlands, areas with sensitive plants, and places prone to erosion, according to the county’s environmental review.
Although state law only requires counties to post a list on its website of roads open to WATVs, Okanogan County plans to erect signs that inform people which roads are closed to WATVs. The county also hopes to clarify where WATVs can go through outreach to rider groups, including an informational brochure, said Okanogan County Engineer Josh Thomson.
On roads open to WATVs, signs would be posted at the intersection of any spur road where the vehicles are prohibited. The county also plans to post warning signs near environmentally sensitive 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,” according to the environmental review.
The proposal commits to consulting with state and federal land-management agencies about any concerns they have about off-road riding.
There are no standardized signs for WATVs, which are a special class of ATV with added safety features such as lights and mirrors, said Thomson. “There’s usually a national standard, but Washington made them [WATVs] up” in a law passed in 2013 allowing counties to designate roads with speeds of 35 miles per hour (mph) or lower for WATV use. The law includes a registration system to track the vehicles.
The county has explored various types of signs to indicate which roads are open or closed to WATVs. Officials previously considered signing every road or road segment with a green dot at the beginning of a road open to wheeled ATVs, and a red dot where the route ends, said Thomson. That approach would have required 800 to 900 signs and cost $24,000 to $31,000 for northeastern Okanogan County alone, he said.
The current proposal would use delineators, the flexible guideposts about 4 feet high that mark the edge of a road with a small reflector at the top. The county is considering affixing a red X to the reflector to signal closed spur roads on a WATV route, said Thomson. “Any intersecting road not open to WATVs would have a red X,” he said.
The county would explain the sign on its website and on maps and brochures about the WATV road system.
While the new idea is more feasible, it’s still not cheap — it would cost $50 in materials and labor per sign, said Thomson, who said it’s not yet known how many signs would be required. Although the state law includes provisions and funding for signs, it didn’t contemplate signs for route finding and to protect environmentally sensitive areas.
In addition to the small signs marking closed roads, the county will post larger signs near environmentally sensitive areas. Suggested wording for those signs is “$1,000 maximum fine for illegal WATV use,” plus the relevant section in the county code.
The sensitive-area signs would be slightly smaller than the county’s primitive-road signs, with black letters on a white background. The county plans to start with 20 such signs.
The county intends to start posting the signs about the penalty for illegal riding in March and the delineators with the red X’s by April, before the start of the recreational WATV season, said Thomson.
While state law doesn’t require the county to sign the roads themselves — it makes riders responsible for consulting the lists and maps on the county’s website — Okanogan County passed a stricter ATV ordinance that requires signage and enforcement, including extra signs near sensitive areas. The ordinance was passed after the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) and Conservation Northwest successfully challenged the county’s decision to open all county roads 35 mph and below to WATVs.
In comments on the proposal to open more roads to the vehicles in District 1, MVCC said they are “cautiously supportive” of opening roads to WATVs. MVCC said it had been 14 months since the county committed to posting signs, but none had been erected.
The county also established fines for illegal riding, with higher penalties for riding in sensitive areas. The county sets three fines for illegal use: $250 for riding on a road not open to WATVs, $500 for riding off-road, and $1,000 for riding off-road in an environmentally sensitive area.
The county modified the District 1 proposal currently under consideration to include a commitment to signage, as suggested by MVCC.
The county commissioners are holding a public hearing on the District 1 roads on Feb. 25 at 1:30 p.m. in the commissioners’ auditorium in Okanogan. People can provide up to five minutes of verbal testimony at the hearing or submit written comments at the hearing or in advance, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Documents regarding the proposal, including a map of the proposed roads, may be viewed at www.okanogancounty.org planning. For more information, contact Planning Director Perry Huston at (509) 422-7218 or email@example.com.