Do ATVs belong on roads? Towns are abuzz on perks, drawbacks

A utility terrain vehicle, or UTV, travels on a road, in Gorham, N.H., Friday, July 23, 2021. Rural communities across the country are wrestling with the economic perks and environmental drawbacks of opening up their roads to ATVs. Interest in ATVs has only intensified as more people got outdoors during the pandemic. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

MORRISTOWN, Vt. (AP) — Tom and Cynthia Cloutier treasure spending time on their porch, eating dinner on their deck with a view of the mountains, and generally just enjoying the quiet of living in rural Vermont in the home they bought in 2018 after retirement.

That all changed the following year, when a section of road that abuts their property was opened to all-terrain vehicles that previously were not permitted on roads. Frequently, when they’d go outside, noisy ATVs would be coming down the road, he said.

“Overnight our Silver Ridge (Road) became a superhighway of ATVs,” Tom Cloutier said. “We could hear these machines inside our home, but when we went outside we could not have a conversation, sit on our front porch quietly with our coffee, or eat dinner on our deck or enjoy watching the sunset.”

What started as a trial run in Morristown in 2019 ended last year after a complaint, a town official said. Now, an ATV group is asking the town to again open up a section of the road and parts of other roads so that riders can get gas, stay or park at a local motel and eat at local restaurants. The access would connect them to a neighboring community where ATVs are legal on roads.

Their town has joined a small but growing list of rural communities across the country that have opened or are considering whether to open up their roads to ATVs, with some taking advantage of the economic benefits that come with outdoor tourism.

ATV interest has only intensified as more people got outdoors during the pandemic. But their popularity has sometimes pitted riders against residents, with communities struggling to balance the perks with a loss of tranquillity.

“Our vision for our town should be for everybody,” said ATV rider Lisa Desjardins at a July public meeting about the Morristown proposal. “It shouldn’t just be for people who are riding bikes, who are runners. It should be for everybody, whether you like ATVs or not.”

Last year, sales of ATVs rose over 33%, according to Scott Schloegel, senior vice president for government relations for the Recreational Off-Highway Vehicle Association, which opposes on-road use of ATVs unless they are trail connectors. That jump in sales creates more interest in access to public lands where trails exist and additional demand for new trails and for trail maintenance, he said.

Even though it was closed for two months last year during the pandemic, the 1,000-mile Hatfield-McCoy Trails in West Virginia last year sold its highest number of annual trail permits at nearly 65,000, according to the office of Gov. Jim Justice, and ATV permits for Maine residents jumped 6%, officials said.

It’s a great economic driver for those communities, Schloegel said of the Hatfield-McCoy trail network, “It’s everything from the mom-and-pop gas stations to the motels and hotels to the fast food joints and the power sports dealerships and service locations that they’ve got across the state.”

Officials with the Open Space & Trails Department in Summit County, Colorado, have noticed an increase in off-highway vehicle use of trails in recent years. ATV trails are also accessible to hikers, bikers and equestrians, the department said.

In northern New Hampshire, Gorham opened some roads to ATVs about eight years ago, and on summer weekends the town of under 3,000 is bustling with the machines.

On a Friday in July, riders from as far away as North Carolina had rented machines and were touring the trails. Others from Connecticut and Rhode Island, their ATVs in tow, were staying at a local motel.

John Bates Jr., who doesn’t have trails near his home in Epsom, New Hampshire, visits frequently. He drove 2 1/2 hours and was staying at a motel. Friends were renting machines the following day and together they planned to hit the more than 1,000-mile Ride the Wilds trail network, “which is absolutely fantastic,” he said.

Some residents near roads open to ATVs are annoyed.

“This little town was the cutest little town, quiet, everybody was friendly. Now it’s a nightmare,” said Sandy Lemire, a longtime resident of Gorham, which sits on the edge of the White Mountains. She complained about the noise and smell of exhaust.

“Outside is unbelievable,” she said. “You can’t hear yourself think; sometimes I can’t even hear my lawn mower, especially when there’s a festival going on and they’re all traveling this way.”

Residents of Morristown, Vermont, are expected to vote on the ATV proposal this fall. In July, riders testified that opening up sections of certain roads would boost the economy and give them access to food and fuel, while other residents raised concerns about safety, noise and the environment.

“We’re not asking to drive through town, all your other roads right now. Probably won’t,” said rider Mike Putvain. “Have you ever paid for four-wheeler tires? We don’t want to ride blacktop. We’d rather be on a dirt road or a trail and hopefully we get more.”