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In reversal, panel recommends new ATV routes on Sauk County highways

April 11, 2019

One month after rejecting a major expansion of all-terrain vehicle routes on Sauk County highways, a committee reversed course Wednesday.

The Sauk County Board’s five-member Highway and Parks Committee voted unanimously to recommend approval of 31 route applications submitted by local ATV clubs. That sends them on to the full board for final consideration Tuesday night.

Approval would be a major win for ATV enthusiasts, who for months have fought to grow their network of road routes, shrugging off safety concerns.

Since adopting an ATV ordinance in 2013, the county has opened more than 70 miles of its highways to off-road recreational vehicles.

Late last year, local clubs submitted 41 new applications requesting about 70 additional miles of routes.

By a margin of 3-2 last month, the highway committee rejected motions to approve the applications. Members cited safety and a state law that does not count drunken driving offenses on ATVs consecutive to those received while operating other vehicles.

However, Committee Chairman David Riek of Spring Green said Wednesday that he decided to revisit the matter again this month because he believed the committee did not adequately explain its prior decision.

“I’m not so certain we left the public with the best explanation for why the routes weren’t approved,” Riek said.

He said his main objections were to proposed routes that would end in the middle of a highway, rather than at a dead end or existing trail. That would force riders to decide whether to continue on an unapproved route or turn around, he said, potentially causing safety issues.

The committee rejected motions last month to recommend nearly all the routes in one swoop, and Riek said the committee owed the clubs and public to examine each route separately.

During Wednesday’s discussion, committee members picked out several routes they didn’t favor due to safety or lack of support from municipalities, but opted to give the green light to others.

Following a nearly hour-long discussion, the panel recommended the approval of 29 applications as submitted and two with modifications. It rejected 10 outright.

A state law allows local governments to decide whether to open their highways and streets to off-road vehicles.

Local clubs claim doing so will boost recreational tourism. They also say they need the county highways to connect an existing network of routes that towns, villages, and cities already have approved.

Safety advocates, federal regulators and ATV manufacturers say the vehicles are dangerous on paved surfaces due to their soft, low-pressure tires and high center of gravity. They caution riders not to ride on public roads, even if local governments allow it.

During a period of Wednesday’s meeting set aside for public comments, Baraboo Bluffs ATV/UTV Club President Robert Spencer accused people who have raised safety concerns of having “a hidden agenda” and being dishonest.

“It’s a stall and delay tactic, specifically by certain people to postpone, or delay or eliminate the ATV routes in Sauk County,” he said. “Like I say, if it isn’t the safety issue, they’re going to come up with something else.”

Town of Excelsior resident Russ Hasenbalg said he is not opposed to the ATV routes, but suggested clubs have requested more than they need for recreational purposes.

“I don’t think every road really has to be opened to them, especially highways and more heavily traveled roads,” he said. “But there does seem to be an insistence that all roads have to be opened to ATVs and (utility task vehicles). It would appear that there was a lot of dead ends created just for the argument to open all the roads.”

Sauk County Highway Commissioner Patrick Gavinski distributed public comments that he received by email to members of the committee. Copies of those communications were not immediately available upon request Wednesday.

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