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Committee ID's possible ATV routes

With some give, some take and a couple tweaks, 14 segments of county highway connecting existing routes and trails moved closer to opening for ATV traffic during a Douglas County Highway Committee meeting Wednesday.

"It's a good day," said Supervisor Dan Corbin, a member of the Northwest Trails Association.

After getting a seal of approval -- or disapproval -- from the highway department and sheriff's department, the applications move on to a Douglas County Board possibly as early as this month.

"None of these trails are open at this time," cautioned Kay Johnson, committee chairwoman. Even if approval is given, the routes would not open to ATVs until signs are posted.

One seal of approval the applications will not get is that of Sheriff Tom Dalbec.

"I will not sign off on any of them," he said. The manufacturers of ATVs obviously feel operating ATVs on blacktop roads is unsafe, the sheriff said. Every manual carries a big warning saying that operating ATVs on asphalt or blacktop could lead to serious injury or death.

"I think this is a bad decision that is putting the dollar above safety," Dalbec said.

His opinion hasn't stopped the process to date. Last month, the county board of supervisors approved an ordinance allowing ATV access on approved, signed segments of county highway.

"The sheriff is absolutely against it," noted highway committee member Nick Baker, but "I myself feel we've got to try to do these things."

Committee member Jack Sweeney likened it to an unused library -- if you never let patrons in, you'll never get a dirty or stolen book, but opportunity will be lost.

"By opening these versus having them closed obviously you'll have a few accidents," he said, but Highway Commissioner Paul Halverson has the power to close any of the county highway links if they become a safety concern.

Dalbec noted that Sweeney's analogy doesn't fit. There's a big difference, he said, between a book and a life.

"I understand your concerns with safety," Corbin said at Wednesday's meeting. He believes allowing access will diminish unsafe behavior. Within a week of opening the blacktop Tri-Lakes Road to ATV traffic, Corbin said, riders who had been speeding past illegally followed the rules and kept their speed to 25 or 10 mph as posted.

"That's our experience in the town of Summit," he said.

The proposal to open sections of county highway could net more revenue for local businesses, which Corbin said were the driving force behind the request.

"For years, let's face it they've been promoting tourism up here, anything to bring people in," said Jim Farmer, captain of the Hawthorne Volunteer Fire Department and town supervisor. "This brings people in."

There's thousands of ATVs in the region and they outnumber snowmobiles.

"Business; lot of money," said Jack Zembo of the Douglas County SWORDS, an ATV club. "With the economy being the way it is, all of a sudden this is kind of a cheap way to take the family somewhere."

Highway committee members discussed each application, taking into account hills, curves and traffic speeds at each site. More than a dozen community members in attendance also chimed in.

A proposed route on Highway B in Hawthorne was moved to make it safer. Instead of allowing ATV access from Carlson Road to Hallberg Road, the committee chose the stretch from Church Road to Hallberg Road. The move made the strip longer -- from 0.4 miles to one mile -- but avoided a hill.

"It's a way better way," Farmer said.

Caution signs were ordered for other routes -- including eastbound on Highway B between the Otto and Najt roads in Oakland, and eastbound on Highway D for the 0.2 mile stretch between Balsam Lake Road and the Gandy Dancer Trail.

"I like the process today," said County Board Chairman Doug Finn. "A lot of good input."

Members of the public agreed.

"All the people except the sheriff were here and they all had their comments," Zembo said. "Got a lot accomplished. This is a biggie here."

The committee also approved a policy and application form for designating ATV routes on county highways.