Chelan, Douglas counties hold off on opening roads to ATVs, for now
NCW — Political leaders in Chelan and Douglas counties are holding off on any decisions to open roads to all terrain vehicles, despite a new state law that eases restrictions on them.
OKANOGAN — Two conservation groups have sued to block the opening of nearly all of Okanogan County’s roads to ATVs.
Conservation Northwest and the Methow Valley Citizens Council sued Wednesday in Okanogan County Superior Court seeking an injunction prohibiting the ordinances from taking effect, and an order declaring that they violate state law.
The lawsuit comes after state lawmakers worked for years on a compromise bill that requires licensing and safety features for all terrain vehicles, also known as off-road vehicles, but also allows counties to decide whether to open roads with speed limits under 35 mph to ATV use.
In late July — just before the new law took effect, Okanogan County commissioners unanimously adopted one ordinance opening to ATVs more than 600 miles of county roads with speed limits greater than 35 mph. A few days later they held another hearing and opened all of its roads with speed limits under 35 mph.
Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest, said he hasn’t heard of any other counties that opened almost all county roads to ATV use.
“The high-speed roads, we think, are ridiculously illegal,” he said. “And by opening all the roads that could potentially qualify under the 35 mph speed limit without deliberation, review or evaluation — that’s not what the legislature envisioned,” he added.
Commissioners said they’ve been advised not to comment on the case.
But Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy did say they held public meetings and solicited public comment before taking action to open hundreds of miles of roads to ATVs in late July.
Melanie Rowland, a board member and in-house legal counsel for the Methow Valley Citizens Council, said she and many others attended those meetings to urge commissioners not to open the roads to ATVs.
“It’s very clear — the citizens of the Methow Valley have expressed a desire to have non-motorized recreation be the backbone of the economy,” she said, adding, “The commissioners turned a completely deaf ear.”
Rowland said their biggest concern is that opening roads to ATVs gives them access to off-road use that will damage sensitive lands and wildlife. They are also concerned about the public safety problems posed by sharing roads with ATVs, she said.
The lawsuit said commissioners failed to conduct an environmental review, violating the State Environmental Policy Act, before adopting the ordinances.
State Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, said he’s disappointed the groups opted to file a lawsuit instead of coming back to county commissioners to try to get specific roads closed for specific reasons.
At the legislature, Kretz spoke against a proposed amendment just before the bill passed that would have prevented roads in the Methow Valley from use by ATVs, since the area’s economy is tied to non-motorized recreation.
In his speech on the House floor, Kretz told other lawmakers that the Methow Valley should be protected, but added that what’s good for the other 38 counties should be good for Okanogan County. “We get into trouble when we start carving out small areas like this,” he said in his testimony.
In an interview on Thursday, Kretz said he doesn’t think the ordinances go against his commitment to meet the needs of all users, including non-motorized recreation in the Methow.
“My hope was that there would be some constructive dialogue on a local level,” he said, adding, “I do want balance. I don’t think they should be (open) on every single road.”
He said that commissioners left open the option of closing roads through petition, and groups opted to file a lawsuit instead of asking commissioners to close roads.
“I don’t think the lawsuit helps,” he said, adding, “Let’s put it aside and sit down and see if we can’t reach some decisions that everyone can live with.”