January 30, 2008 in City

Off-road vehicles spark noisy debate

Richard Roesler Staff writer

OLYMPIA – Some rural residents, describing noisy off-road-vehicles barreling down country lanes, are trying to head off a new proposal that could usher more of the machines onto city and county roads.

“This is like a creeping cancer, this ORV thing,” Seattle resident John Coelhu complained to state lawmakers at a hearing Monday night.

Trying to boost tourism in small towns, state lawmakers in 2006 said thinly populated areas of the state could let off-road vehicles use designated local roads. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda.

Officials in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties acted quickly, opening hundreds of miles of road to off-road vehicles. Some local officials point with envy to Shoshone County, Idaho, where ORV “jamborees” draw thousands of visitors a year.

Under state law, ORVs include all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles, four-wheel-drive machines and dune buggies. They’re exempt from the licensing and equipment standards that apply to motor vehicles.

“If we don’t give them a place to ride, they’ll start breaking the law,” said state Rep. Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum, calling the critics “hyper-environmentalists.”

“This is a growing industry,” Hinkle said. “We have to learn how to work with them, be environmentally sensitive, but also provide some opportunities for enjoyment.”

This year, Rep. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, wants to broaden the law so any city or county can designate roads for ORV access.

Warnick says she just wants farmers tending irrigation lines to be able to use their ORVs to get from field to field. It’s far more efficient than firing up an old farm truck, she said.

But that’s already state law, according to people on both sides of the debate. Farmers can affix a tractor-style triangle placard to their vehicle and ride it for miles between fields.

Warnick’s proposal has triggered a wave of complaints from people who think Olympia made a mistake with the first bill and is about to make a bigger one.

“All this e-mail that I’m getting is coming from the northeastern corner of the state,” said Rep. Dean Takko, D-Longview.

Among those fighting the bill is Bob Whittaker, a resident of Malo, about 15 miles north of Republic.

Whittaker said he’s not opposed to the machines – he rides an on-road/off-road motorcycle. But local officials have gone overboard in opening up dozens of quiet roads, he said. The machines are noisy, dangerous on substandard local roads and draw thousands of people to normally quiet communities for jamborees and bonfires, Whittaker said.

“We can’t coexist with something blanketing our area like this,” he said.

“This is a big undercurrent push by the ORV lobby to get more places to ride,” added Nancy Armstrong, an Olympia-area woman who fought a long legal battle against a neighbor who built an ORV racetrack facing her front yard. “It’s a real intrusion into your peace and quiet. … All you can hear is the whine of ORVs.”

Ken Barker, a leader of the Colville-based Tri-County Motorized Recreation Association, said critics’ fears are largely unfounded. He said the group has collected 1,700 signatures from people, mostly in Stevens County, who support allowing the machines on roads.

The machines are noisy only if people remove the spark arrestors, making them illegal in forests, Barker said.

Many riders are “grandmas and grandpas” enjoying outings with their families, he said.

“There’s a huge part of the population that are very responsible people,” said Barker. “There’s always that 1 or 2 percent that get out of hand. … It isn’t all that bad like these greenies are saying.”

The rule allowing farmers to ride the machines on roads isn’t enough, he said. Recreational riders want to be able to ride on roads, too, and the money they spend will help struggling communities, Barker explained.

One of the biggest obstacles could be the concern voiced by state Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, who questioned whether the bill could allow “three-wheelers and four-wheelers going down the streets of Seattle?”

Yes, said Warnick, if local officials wanted that. “I just want the local authorities to be able to make the decisions on where the ORVs are,” she said.

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