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Rule would allow ATVs on highways

Small sections of county highways could provide ATV enthusiasts with access to a wider network of trails under a proposed ordinance the Douglas County Board of Supervisors will vote on Thursday.

The ordinance would allow ATV users to drive along posted stretches of county highways that connect current ATV routes. Under the proposal, ATVs would drive on the road itself, not the shoulder or ditch. Speed would be limited, riders would be required to stay in single file and all ATV operators under 18 years of age would be required to wear protective headgear. Fines for violating the ordinance range from $25 to $500.

The proposal has drawn interest and mixed reviews since it was brought before the Douglas County Highway Committee last year.

"I'm supporting this, but I don't like ATVs," said Nick Baker, a member of the Douglas County Highway Committee.

The bottom line is safety, Baker said.

"We want to make this as safe as possible," he said.

John Deterling has seen ATVs race past his house along County Highway P headed toward a nearby gravel pit.

"They get on the road and know it's illegal" so they drive "as fast as they can go," said Deterling, president of the Northwest Trails Association.

That's the kind of behavior the ordinance plans to quash.

"We want them to drive on the highway at a slower speed," Baker said. "We're talking 25 mph in some areas." Within 150 feet of homes, he said, the speed would drop to 10 mph.

Not everyone is comfortable with the idea.

"Just because it's being done doesn't mean it should be legal," said Steve Olson, recreation officer for the Douglas County Sheriff's Department.

ATVs were designed to be used on off-road trails, not pavement. Olson said approval of the ordinance opens up a "Pandora's box" of problems centered around how to determine which stretches of highway would be posted for ATV use.

"There's certainly some routes that are viable, safe and, in my mind justifiable," Olson said. "Some routes are safety concerns."

ATV route designations would have to be approved by the Highway Committee, according to the ordinance. The Douglas County Highway Department would hold the authority to close or terminate any ATV route, subject to approval by the Highway Committee.

Requests for ATV postings would come through the Northwest Trails Association, representing 11 snowmobile and ATV clubs throughout Douglas County. Deterling said the majority of requests will be for short stretches of highway under a half-mile in length.

The ordinance is set for a vote at the county board of supervisors meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday in the Government Center. The vote comes a day before the Douglas County Forestry Department opens 82.4 miles of summer ATV trails.

If approved, the move could broaden horizons for ATV users. For example, the town of Summit allows ATV use on both Michelsky Road and Tri Lakes Road. If a quarter-mile section of County Highway A was posted for ATV traffic, riders would be cross from one road to the other.

"It opens up a whole new line," Deterling said, and "it will benefit at least three businesses."

There is a lot of prospective business to be had. The state has 260,000 registered ATVs users, according to Deterling.

Even if the ordinance passes, however, county highways may not open up for ATV use until fall.

"We're not in a rush," Baker said.

Passage of the ordinance would be the first step, followed by approving and then posting routes.

"At least we're making some progress," Deterling said.

Olson said he was confident the ordinance would pass. He, like Baker and Deterling, emphasized that safety is the key element. The officer said it's important to raise public awareness about the proposal before signage begins going up.

"Be aware ATVs will be operating on the highways," Olson said.

Only this time, it could be legal.