As noise complaints mount, lawmakers balance rights of North Country residents with OHRV enthusiasts

  • In this Aug. 1, 2015, photo provided by the New Hampshire Fish and Game, Fish and Game officers patrol All Terrain Vehicle trails at Jericho Mountain State Park in Berlin, N.H. New Hampshire is home to one of the largest interconnected trail networks within the Northeast. A boon to North Country businesses and tourism, but a challenge to law enforcement trying to keep up with accidents and promote safety. (Tim Acerno/New Hampshire Fish and Game via AP) Tim Acerno

  • The ATV involved in Saturday's accident in Westmoreland is shown. April 21, 2018. Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 10/9/2019 6:07:43 PM

Rep. Wayne Moynihan understands the promise and perils of the all-terrain vehicle industry in the North Country as well as anyone. The Democrat, who hails from Dummer, has lived through it – the explosion of interest in the area and the hope that it brings for economic renewal.

But he’s lived through the side effects, too. 

Over a period of years, town select boards across the northern part of the state have approved off-road vehicular access on road after town road, giving ATV clubs and enthusiasts the ability to drive their vehicles from between trails without needing a trailer.

The problem: Some of those roads also cut close to residents, some of whom say they didn’t have adequate notice to object to the rule changes. For certain residents, the noise makes enjoying their homes close to impossible, they say. 

These days, many of the trail networks are well up and running and Moynihan is trying to give landowners an avenue for recourse.

“I’ve had people in tears at my kitchen table over the fact that they’ve lived in this house by the pond for 40 years, and now they’ve got 500 OHRVs going by,” Moynihan said, referring to “off-highway recreational vehicles.”

“And if I can’t fix it, they have to move.”

It’s a dilemma lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are facing with increasing urgency. This year, House members and Senators are grappling over how to reach the right balance.

A bill to provide structure to how town select boards approve roads for OHRVs is moving through the House Resources, Recreation and Development Committee, after a two-hour work session on Wednesday.

The legislation, House Bill 683, aims to impose new standards that towns must apply before approving roads for ATV use. And it gives some recourse to landowners who currently border the trails to push back. But after months of tinkering by committee, the emerging bill is different than what Moynihan originally sponsored.

Under the new language, town select boards would be required to consider 17 criteria before approving a new trail extension on a town road, ranging from the number of abutting landowners and the noise levels to the character of the area and impacts of wildlife. Only after studying each of those factors could the board move ahead on approving the road.

Landowners abutting existing trails, meanwhile, have an option to get the town to consider dismantling the ATV approvals. The proposed law allows them to bring a petition to the town as long as at least 60% of the property owners along that trail sign on. After that, the town would be required to hold a hearing, inform all residents and abutting landowners, and consider the 17 criteria before moving ahead.

The bill allows for a consideration of residents’ concerns while also preserving the ability of a board of selectmen to have final say, supporters say.

But to Moynihan, it strays from the intent of the original bill he filed. That legislation would have required that no roads could be approved at all without the approval of two-thirds of adjacent landowners; the new version would allow the select board to have final say over everything.

Under the latest proposed language, Moynihan says, those abutters suddenly have a much less assured chance to stop the trails.

“I’m still reacting because it is different from what the original concept was. It locks in an existing system, at least in the North Country, that was created without a public process,” he said.

Rep. Suzanne Smith, a Hebron Democrat, understands that reaction. She says politically, the Legislature needed to take smaller steps moving forward – steps that keep current ATV users in mind.

“As much as I think I would love to have a reset and have every single road re-evaluated, that would never pass,” Smith said. “That’s too disruptive.”

The proposed bill builds off legislation that passed in recent years to add more control and give property owners more of a voice in an industry that has transformed the North Country in the last decade. Recent legislation signed by Gov. Chris Sununu adds new driving regulations to OHRVs, increases fines for speeding and requires notice be sent in the mail to landowners on abutting roads of upcoming town hearings.

The network of trails and connector trails has exploded in recent years, connecting towns for dozens of miles and bringing long-awaited tourist dollars to the area. New Hampshire’s laws have some catching up to do, critics say.

“We’re trying really hard to balance the rights of the ATV clubs as well as the rights of the abutters,” said Rep. Wendy Thomas, a Merrimack Democrat and supporter of the reformed legislative language. “And we recognize that some of these roads, especially the Class 6 (town) roads, are helpful for them to get from one side to another.”

Some of the approvals for ATVs in recent years have occurred on state roads, through the New Hampshire Bureau of Trails. That Bureau has a list of criteria it’s supposed to consult before making those approvals. But eager to capitalize on a growing economic opportunity, lawmakers exempted Coos and Grafton counties from the approval criteria.

That meant state approval of OHRV connectors to build the popular “Ride the Wild” loop trail was approved quickly, and without much landowner notice. Other OHRV approvals – particularly along Route 3 and 145 in Pittsburg – have been made directly in state statute, which prevents towns from overturning them.

Some have pointed to that as evidence that those OHRV approvals should be overturned and the state should start from scratch.

But to Buddy Dione, president of the New Hampshire Off Highway Vehicle Association, that would defeat the point of fast-tracking their approval to begin with.

“There was a good reason they exempted (them): Because the North Country was dying,” Dione said. “It was losing all of its mills. It was losing whatever logging it had. It was losing everything. This revitalized the North Country.”

Dione has been accepting of the raft of new OHRV laws in recent years. But he says that the extra regulations on how towns should approve the trails are unnecessary.

“There’s already laws and processes that they go through to do all this stuff now,” Dione said. Lawmakers should watch and see how the recent changes to the law affect trail approvals, rather than add new conditions, he argued.

Meanwhile, state representatives on all sides of the issue have acknowledged that when it comes to coming up with a coherent system of laws for off road vehicles, New Hampshire has a long way to go.

“OHRVs is a huge issue,” said Smith. “When OHRVs first came into the state, no one knew how quickly their use and the controversies would grow.”

Smith pointed to Maine, which has established a task force specifically to deal with OHRV laws and regulations. And Thomas suggested a step further: a new state department or division to specifically tackle OHRV enforcement.

“They’re all valid concerns,” Smith said. “We’re doing a lot here … But I think that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and there’s more to come, and we will be doing a lot more on this in the coming year.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, at (603) 369-3307, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)




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