OKANOGAN — Before a standing-room-only crowd, Okanogan County commissioners on Thursday opened more than 300 miles of county roads to ATVs.
Spencer King, president of the North Central ATV Club, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the unanimous vote, but added, “I don’t think this was something they took lightly, and I don’t think it’s something they made a decision on just today. They have talked to other counties and even other states that have the same thing going on,” he said. “They’ve been researching this for quite some time.”
Sam Owen, president of Friends of Bear Creek in Winthrop, however, said she felt commissioners rushed to get the roads open to ATVs before the new state law goes into effect on Sunday.
After that, counties can only open roads to ATVs that have a speed limit under 35 mph. The roads opened Thursday all have speed limits over 35 mph. Commissioners will consider a new set of roads under 35 mph on Monday.
“They were trying to get it passed before it becomes illegal for them to do so,” she said. “I think they acted irresponsibly.”
Owen said commissioners seemed to dismiss quite a few issues raised, including everyone’s safety when ATVs begin using country roads already well-used by cars, bicyclists, horseback riders and people out walking their dogs.
“To have them on roads that have 50 mph speed limits seems to be asking for dangerous situations,” she said. “There are just going to be some unfortunate encounters.”
She also said she doesn’t think ATVs will help the economy of the Methow Valley, where many of the roads newly opened are. “A lot of ATV use will really change what the Methow is right now, and not for the better,” she said.
King said he thinks a lot of people against the ordinance are afraid of the unknown, and he hopes that once they start sharing the roads with ATVs, they’ll change their minds.
“They kind of threw us all in the same group with people they’ve had experiences with who were actually breaking the law,” he said. “I’d be the first one stopping those people. We don’t want them ruining it for everybody else.”
King said ATVs are also safer than people realize, and the new state law — which his club supports — requires several safety features making them street legal.
Some questions remain as to when the state Department of Licensing will come out with dual licenses and inspections for ATVs, he said, but they likely got caught off guard when the state law passed unexpectedly near the end of the legislative session.
Commissioner Jim DeTro said the two-hour hearing included many opinions that commissioners weighed before deciding to approve all the roads for ATV use. He said they can be closed later, but they won’t have the option of opening them under the current law.
He said he believes the roads should be open to all users. “I have a difficult time when the roads are public roads, and everybody pays fuel taxes. To restrict one segment of the population, in my opinion, is discriminatory.”
He said he thinks ATVs have the potential to improve Okanogan County’s economy, particularly in small towns like Loomis, where a group of six or eight riders stopping in at the town’s only grocery store can have a big impact.
However, he added, with roads opening up to ATVs across the state, he doesn’t expect a deluge of riders suddenly coming to Okanogan County.