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ATV supporters pack county hearing

Dozens of all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts from the far corners of St. Louis County packed the county board chambers in Duluth Tuesday morning for the first of two public hearings on a draft ordinance that would allow ATVs on nearly all county hig...

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Participants wait in line during a NorthShore ATV Club safety training class in Proctor. (file photo / News Tribune)

 

Dozens of all-terrain vehicle enthusiasts from the far corners of St. Louis County packed the county board chambers in Duluth Tuesday morning for the first of two public hearings on a draft ordinance that would allow ATVs on nearly all county highways.

The ordinance would allow four-wheelers to travel on county roads following posted laws and complying with all state regulations.

Currently, standard-sized ATVs are banned from the roadway because the county doesn't have an ordinance, although they can ride in county road ditches. Larger, side-by-side ATVs already can ride on county highways.

Supporters say the ordinance will boost tourism by allowing ATV riders to use county highways to connect between multiple but unconnected forest ATV trails. Riders see a vast network of designated trails that will draw tourists to spend money at lodges, restaurants and taverns.

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ATV enthusiasts hailed the ordinance as an example of "grassroots" government, with the push for more ATV access coming from town boards, rural businesses and ATV clubs.

"If you really want to recharge the Range, this won't do it alone, but it's a big piece of the puzzle," said Mike Jugovich, Chisholm mayor and ATV supporter.

Jerry Bowen, a Crane Lake Township supervisor, thanked the county board for using his area as a pilot project last fall that allowed ATVs on county roads there.

"It's helped our businesses tremendously,'' he said.

Bill Kimbler of Duluth's Lakeside neighborhood said he takes his teenage boys riding ATV in forested areas and hopes to ride more in northern St. Louis County.

"We appreciate the ability to use county road to move between trails,'' he said, adding that it will be up to parents to enforce safety among children driving ATVs on roads. "We want to keep our money in the county. We don't want to have to go to Wisconsin."

While no one expressed opposition to allowing ATVs on rural county roads, some officials in the Duluth area expressed concern that roads in and around the city may be too busy, and inappropriate, for ATV use - especially roads with narrow or no shoulders.

Jerry Larson, a Lakewood Township supervisor, said the town board passed a unanimous resolution against the blanket county plan.

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"We feel it's unsafe,'' Larson said, noting the ordinance allows ATVs to travel as fast as cars and trucks and allows, following state rules, children as young as 12 to operate their own ATV on county highways if a parent is nearby. He said enforcing that parental supervision will be impossible.

"It's akin to child neglect or abuse,'' he added. "It's not fair to drivers. ... This puts children at risk."

Others said the ordinance seemed to expand vastly from allowing ATVs on roads that connect ATV trails to allowing them on nearly all county roads. And while some praised the simplicity of the blanket county ordinance others said may not work well in a county that has such an urban-rural split.

 

Confer or consent?

While officials on both sides Tuesday continued to praise each other for cooperation between local governments, a rift clearly has developed between Duluth and the county over jurisdictional language in the ordinance.

As it is written now, the ordinance opens with no ATV use on county roads within the 16 incorporated cities. But those roads can be opened, by permit, on petition of ATV clubs in cooperation with the city, with the decision up to a special county committee.

The ordinance calls only for the county to "confer'' with the city, giving the county the final say. County officials have essentially asked the cities to trust the county to make the best decisions.

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Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, however, asked commissioners to change the word "confer'' to "consent," giving the city the final say in whether ATVs are allowed on county roads within city limits.

Larson noted that Duluth already has a virtual ban on ATV use in the city limits by prohibiting them on all city property and city streets. She asked for the county board to respect city residents' concerns.

It remains unclear if the city's wishes will be granted, although it's likely an amendment will be offered to change the wording before the ordinance becomes final.

The ATV ordinance is open to written comments through May 20. The county board will hold a second public hearing on the draft ordinance on May 24 in Hibbing and could vote on the ordinance immediately after that.

Existing laws

Proponents see an ATV trail system that someday rivals the state's 22,000 miles of looped, connected snowmobile trails. ATV riding already is bigger by numbers in Minnesota, with roughly 350,000 registered ATVs compared to about 260,000 snowmobiles.

Koochiching, Lake and Cook counties all have adopted blanket ordinances that allow ATVs on nearly all county roads. The ordinances allow ATVs on the right side of the roadway or shoulder but keep them out of the ditch or outside road slopes where erosion can be a problem.

Koochiching adds a 20 mph speed limit on roads, while Lake County has a 40 mph speed limit. Cook County requires only a "safe and reasonable speed for conditions."

Pine and Itasca counties have ATV roadway "policies," short of full-fledged ordinances, that allow ATV use only on specific roads by permit. Permits are issued to recognized ATV clubs to pick routes on county roads to connect ATV trails.

Accident data shows many ATVers are killed on roads. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety reported in 2013 that two-thirds of all ATV deaths in the U.S. happened on roads.

For more information on the ordinance go to stlouiscountymn.gov/ATV .

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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