Riders of all-terrain vehicles in Vermont are increasingly asking for access to town roads. ATV clubs have found a warm welcome in a dozen or more towns statewide, as local officials look to boost businesses that may be hurting from a year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But there has been local pushback as well. Morristown in Lamoille County is the latest municipality to see conflict between ATV enthusiasts and those who don’t want them on town roads.
ATV clubs cite Newport, Vt. as the poster child for communities that can gain an economic advantage from allowing the off-road vehicles access to local streets. The city allowed them to ride downtown in 2020, and the ordinance survived a repeal vote last year.
Local leaders deemed the experiment a success. Business owners said they saw increased sales from riders looking to fuel up themselves and their machines. Police said they had handed out only two traffic tickets to ATV riders during the season.
In Morristown, which includes the village of Morrisville, selectboard chairman Bob Beeman said two years ago, the board gave a local club permission to use one town road that accesses trails in neighboring Hyde Park. He said there’s been some discussion about opening other roads. But he said the board wants to hold a public meeting when pandemic restrictions are lifted, to hear what residents think. He said the issue has stirred up a lively debate in town.
"People are texting me, people are calling me; I've even had several visits to my house. I have to tell you I've been on the board for 13 years and I've been the chair for 10," he said. "And in that time, I never came across a more contentious issue than this ATV issue."
Beeman, who owns an ATV, said he does see the economic potential if town roads are opened.
“It is a benefit for our local business. I think that it could bring some economy to the businesses that have been hurting because of COVID. And I do think that’s a real positive,” he said. “However, I do understand where some people are feeling that they’re losing peace and quiet.”
Count dairy farmer Selina Rooney among those Morristown residents who are worried about ATVs.
“If they were on this road, we wouldn’t be able to farm like we do now,” she said.
Rooney’s farm is on Mud City Loop, a rural dirt road that’s aptly named.
Speaking in her sugarhouse, where she was boiling down the last of one of this year's sap runs, Rooney said she uses the road to take her cows out to reach various pastures. She said she thinks the machines and increased traffic will be too much for her animals.
“The cows are terrified of loud noises. And we move the milkers out to pasture every day. Every morning we move them out, [and] we bring them back right before milking,” she said. “If there were ATVs on the road, it would scare them too much. They would start running. And when one cow starts running, all 50 of them would be running.”
Rooney and many of her Mud City neighbors began to organize earlier this year, when the road was mentioned for ATV use at a selectboard meeting. The local club also emailed the head of the selectboard about the idea.
There’s no formal proposal to use the road yet, but Mud City resident Jim Rossiter said neighbors wanted to make their voices heard at the very early stages, so they created a website and began organizing.
He listed his own concerns:
“Safety; safety concerns for the people who don’t follow the rules, which would be a very slow speed limit out here to begin with; the noise, especially the noise of ATVs in packs, which I understand is how they often travel,” he said. “And we all use this road. My kids are finally just old enough to ride their bikes out around the roads and ride over to their friends’ houses.”
As we sit at a safe distance apart on his deck, the main background sound is spring bird song. Perhaps one car drives by. Rossiter said that’s the beauty of this quiet place. ATVs could spoil that with noise, dust and too much traffic, he said.
“People actually come from other areas of town and park at the bottom of Cole Hill and use Mud City Loop as a loop. So it’s a great six-mile trail for people to come and run or walk as they see fit,” he said.
Shannon Friedrich is a member and former president of the local ATV club, called Green Mountain ATV riders. The Eden resident said he and other riders prefer to ride on trails, and stay away from roads when possible. Freidrich said that’s also the policy of the state’s umbrella organization for riders, the Vermont ATV Sportsmans Association, or VASA.
“And we’d like access to every private piece of land off the road that we can get our hands on,” he said. “The whole club and the entire organization of VASA was designed originally as a trail system.”
But private land to ride on is hard to find. Freidrich said his club recently tried but failed to gain access to trails on a large, 4,700 tract of private timber land.
“Most foresters are against any ATV,” he said. “I think it has come to down to a bad taste in their mouths from years past and things that have happened that have turned them off to it, and they have just shut the door to it completely. But there’s also no incentive from the state to say ‘Hey, let’s let this club make a trail.’”
Freidrich points out that other trail users in Vermont – including horseback riders and mountain bikers – use state property. But he says the state has strict limits in place on ATV use on public lands. He compares that to northern New Hampshire, where a combined state and private trail system has created a huge draw for ATV riders from all over the region.
“They have some systems over there that are congested, but they’re managed very well,” he said. “And the economy that they draw over there is insane and this state doesn’t see [it].”
Even though the ATV club policy is to use trails when possible, Freidrich has talked to the Morrisville selectboard about the idea of opening up town roads, including some in the village areas that do not link to trails. He says riders like the idea of being able to shop or go to a restaurant downtown.
“People want to come to towns because it’s different and that would draw its own crowd of people into businesses in town,” he said.
Jim Rossiter in Mud City points to this disconnect in the ATV club’s argument. Why, he asked, does the ATV club want access to downtown roads when there are no trails nearby for them to link to?
“I think a more reasonable proposal that opens up roads to connect trails is understandable,” he said. “I’m not against folks riding their ATVs … But these are off-road vehicles. By definition they are off-road vehicles and it is too bad they don’t have more trails to ride on.”
Rossiter also said Morristown has a thriving outdoor recreation-based economy. The Lamoille Valley Rail Trail runs through the area and draws cyclists and hikers from all over the region. There’s also an extensive hiking trail system in the Beaver Meadow area of town.
Rossiter questioned if the town would see the economic boon the ATV organization promises.
“Because as many riders are going to come in, other people may not come to town anymore,” he said. “There’s no question business will be lost as well as gained.”
Bob Beeman, the selectboard chairman, wants to put the issue to a public vote. He also wants the community as a whole to discuss it, and that won’t happen until COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.
Meanwhile, other towns face the same debate.
In March, voters in the Franklin County town of Montgomery rejected a proposal to allow ATVs on town roads. But proponents have petitioned for a revote, so the debate continues there, and in other towns across the state.
We've closed our comments. Read about ways to get in touch here.