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Sauk County committee wraps up work on ATV road rules

September 13, 2018 GMT

The Sauk County Board is likely to consider major changes to an ordinance governing all-terrain vehicle routes along public roads next month.

During a meeting Wednesday, the board’s Highway and Parks Committee all but approved a new version of the county’s existing ATV and utility-task vehicle ordinance.

“It has a lot of good safety features in place now,” said Laurie Hasenbalg, a town of Excelsior resident who has attended committee meetings to advocate for more stringent ATV rules. “It’s fair.”

After making several minor tweaks, the five-person panel agreed to vote on the rewritten ordinance at its October meeting. The committee’s approval would send it to the full board for final consideration later that month.

Among numerous other changes, the rewritten ordinance would eliminate an existing requirement intended to ensure that ATV vehicle enthusiasts prioritize dirt trails over paved roads.

Those who apply for ATV access along a county highway no longer would be required to provide the names of landowners who were contacted in an effort to establish an off-road alternative.

In addition to other application process changes, the revised ordinance would create new criteria that county officials must consider when looking at proposed routes, including public input. It also would establish rules and penalties for riders who violate them.

Among several changes approved Wednesday, the committee decided ATV speeding fines should mirror those established for cars. Under the new ordinance, the speed limit for ATVs on county highways would remain at 35 mph, unless an alternate limit is required by law or road conditions.

“I think it’s a good change,” said Supervisor Tommy Lee Bychinski of Reedsburg. “I think that’s where we have to go.”

Application rejection prompted rewrite

County officials have been working to revise the ordinance since this spring, after the board turned down an ATV club’s application for a massive expansion of road access throughout the county.

During the board’s March meeting, supervisors said they heard from town officials who were unaware of new routes in their areas. The board voted to send the proposed expansion back to committee.

At the highway committee’s next meeting in April, county staff said the ATV club’s application was invalid because it did not include the names of landowners contacted in an effort to establish an off-road alternative.

During that meeting, Sauk Ridge Runners ATV Club representative Richard Fish told the committee it often is impractical to find off-road routes. He suggested the committee consider revising the ordinance, and the committee obliged.

New committee members seated after the April election have since taken over that process, and the group worked throughout the summer with county staff to tweak the ordinance.

Current ordinance never followed

In June, the Baraboo News Republic reported that the existing ordinance requirement intended to ensure that ATV enthusiasts prioritize dirt paths over paved roads never has been followed.

Documents obtained through a public records request show none of the ATV route applications submitted to the county since the ordinance was created in 2013 have included the required list of contacted landowners.

The county has opened numerous stretches of its highways to ATVs without requiring clubs to show that they first tried to establish off-road alternatives. More than 70 miles of county highways are now open to ATVs and UTVs.

Supporters say the highway routes are necessary to connect town roads throughout the county, many of which already have been opened to ATVs. They also say expanding road access will bring recreational tourism to the area.

Critics say the off-road vehicles are noisy and pose safety hazards on public highways, in part because of soft low-pressure tires and a high center of gravity. In 2017, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says, 65 percent of fatal incidents involving ATVs, UTVs, and off-highway motorcycles occurred on roads.

“I think it’s a wonderful recreation for people,” said Supervisor Jean Berlin of Hillpoint. “But there again, we want to provide guidelines. We want to make sure they’re safe and that they have the proper routes.”