Douglas County is considering a proposal that would open all county highways for use by all-terrain and utility-task vehicles.
The county’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is expected to consider directing county staff to begin developing ordinances that would allow the county to move forward.
Currently, only three of the nine northern counties — Burnett, Polk and Rusk — permit ATVs on all of their county roads, and two of those are concerned about lawsuits because they allow ATVs on county roads, committee chairman Nick Baker said. He said it’s an issue that raises concerns for Douglas County officials because of connections made among trails along county highways.
“Sawyer County has a rule that they can only make connections,” Baker said. “There is a movement in the Legislature to increase the speed to 35 mph on county highways … my personal feeling is I’d like to continue with connections because of safety and lawsuits.”
Douglas County has permitted groups and trails associations to petition the county to make connections between trail systems with routes along county highways since 2009.
“We want it safe,” Baker said. “When we started out, we were hoping … the biggest one we wanted to deal with was a mile.”
Baker said it wouldn’t be an issue if county roads had wide, paved shoulders, but that’s not the case.
Under the current county ordinance, ATV riders are allowed to use only designated portions of Douglas County roads.
Dan Corbin of Northwest Trails said he talked to officials in two of the counties and found no issues with accidents in either of the county that allow ATVs on all of their roads.
Since 2009, there have been no major ATV accidents in which a vehicle struck an ATV on a county highway either.
“We’re asking for this because I think we’ve demonstrated that our riders are safe,” Corbin said. He said some of the counties that allow ATVs on their roads review it every year and riders, like drivers, are expected to follow the rules of the road.
“The sheriff’s office is neither for nor against opening all the routes to ATVs, UTVs,” said Jake Engleman, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office recreational officer. “We feel that if they do open up, there’s some loopholes in state law and there’s some ordinances that we would recommend.”
He said the county could require riders to have valid driver’s licenses to ensure riders aren’t circumventing drunken driving revocations by using an ATV. It’s a requirement the city of Superior adopted when the Council created ATV and UTV routes in the city.
Taylor Pedersen, president and CEO of the Chamber of Superior-Douglas County and Travel Superior, said the Chamber is in “full support” of the measure to open all county roads for ATV use.
“We believe this is good for business,” Pedersen said. “We believe this is good for tourism in communities throughout the entire county. We also have some concerns for safety … for public education.”
Pedersen the purpose in opening the roads is connectivity and riders don’t want to stay on the roads indefinitely — they want to connect trail to trail. He said in counties where it’s been allowed, it has been a positive thing for the local economy.
County Board Chairman Mark Liebaert said he doesn’t believe the risk to the county is any greater with ATV routes on county roads than it would be for any other matter.
Baker recommended putting the issue on the agenda for the next Transportation and Infrastructure Committee meeting July 10 to direct staff to begin developing ordinances for future consideration.