Garfield County eyes access for off-highway vehicles
An ordinance paving the way for off-highway vehicle use on designated county roads will likely come before Garfield County commissioners in the next two months.
If adopted, Garfield would join a growing list of Colorado counties seizing what some see as a valuable economic opportunity.
“I’m hopeful that we can get this across the finish line in the near future,” said Fred Jarman, deputy Garfield County manager.
Jarman serves as the county administration’s point man on a committee evaluating the possibility of opening certain county roads for OHV use.
A draft ordinance is awaiting review of the committee, which also includes local enthusiasts and other county departments, including the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.
The hope is to bring something before commissioners in late August or early September, Jarman said.
An increasing number of Colorado counties and municipalities have started considering the OHV issue in order to catch up with other states in the West, said Scott Jones, an authorized representative with the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition, an advocacy group that promotes pro-OHV legislation and regulation.
With regards to OHV use on county roads and other streets, “Colorado was really lagging behind in this area,” according to Jones.
That fueled frustration among out-of-state OHV enthusiasts who came to Colorado without knowing the limitations on where the vehicles are allowed. Off-highway vehicles are defined as wheeled motorized vehicles capable of cross-country travel on land, snow, ice, marsh, swampland or other natural terrain.
Similarly, as certain local jurisdictions moved ahead with their own regulations, the situation started to evolve into a quagmire where riders could unknowingly drop into a different county and be in violation of local rules, Jones said.
Several years of effort culminated in state legislation, signed into law earlier this year, that grants local jurisdictions the ability to require OHV operators to have a driver’s license or liability insurance. The law also requires local jurisdictions to notify the Colorado Department of Transportation before allowing OHV riders to cross state highways in those jurisdictions.
Although far from perfect, the legislation helped bring far more uniformity to Colorado OHV regulations than before, Jones said.
“It’s happening so quick at this point that we’re having trouble tracking it,” he said of the number of counties and municipalities addressing the issue.
During a presentation to Garfield County commissioners in May, members of the OHV committee cited direction from the state as one of the primary outstanding issues holding up work in Garfield County.
Through the legislation approved earlier this year, that direction came faster than some members of the committee anticipated.
‘Nice little deal’
Tourism is typically the primary driver of efforts to expand OHV access to local roads.
Rio Blanco County, which is seen as a pioneer in western Colorado regarding OHV use, continues to benefit from expanded OHV access, said Shawn Bolton, chairman of the Rio Blanco County commissioners.
Over the past four or five years, the county has designated certain roads for OHV use and worked with the towns of Meeker and Rangely to open up OHV use in those municipalities.
The result, said Bolton, is that Rio Blanco County has become a “mecca of outdoor recreation for OHVs.”
Meeker now hosts the annual Wagon Wheel OHV Rendezvous, which saw approximately 187 registered participants this year, along with an OHV rodeo. Both events have grown every year, according to Bolton.
“It’s turned into a nice little deal for us,” he said.
Trying to capture some of that tourism and the accompanying economic benefits led Parachute trustees last month to unanimously approve an ordinance allowing OHV use in town for the purpose of accessing surrounding recreation spots.
At this point, the ordinance is more preparation than anything else.
The goal is to allow OHV riders to park in the town and ride out to surrounding trails, so a trip to the store would not meet the intent of the ordinance.
However, since the primary roadways leading out to trails and public land are county roads, Garfield County would have to change its policy regarding OHV use on public roads before the vehicles would be allowed on public roads in Parachute, said Stuart McArthur, town manager.
The ordinance in Parachute was put forward with the hope that the county will revise its policies and allow OHV use on designated roads, including Garfield County Road 215 and 300.
“We’re just kind of a step ahead,” McArthur said.
Parachute’s ordinance includes strict requirements pertaining to insurance, vehicle specifications and other regulations.
OHV operators must be at least 16 years old and have both a valid driver’s license and liability insurance at least equal to the minimum required under state law. OHVs also must be registered with Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Vehicles almost must have certain specifications to operate on local roads, including: a muffler in constant operation; a spark arrestor approved by the U.S. Forest Service; a braking system that meets specific capabilities; at least one lighted head lamp and one lighted tail lamp; at least one rear-view mirror; and at least one functioning brake light.
Safety a concern
Those requirements are intended to address safety concerns, one of the more consistent issues with expanding OHV access on public roads.
During a meeting in August 2015, state lawmakers heard from several officials with Children’s Hospital of Colorado who voiced reservations about expanding OHV access on public roads due to safety concerns.
The officials presented a paper from the Specialty Vehicle Institute of America, a nonprofit trade association, opposing on-road use of all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).
“ATVs are designed, manufactured and sold for off-road use only …” the letter reads. “Permitting on-road use of ATVs, including modified ATVs, would be in conflict with manufacturers’ intention for their proper use, and would be contrary to federal safety requirements.”
From 1995 through 2014, the number of ATV rider deaths on public roads per year in the U.S. has fluctuated from a low of 102 in 1995 to a high of 377 in 2008, according to data compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. In 2014 there were 323 deaths.
However, local officials said OHV incidents on public roads are a rarity.
Bolton said he could only recall two incidents, one in Meeker several years ago and another during the OHV rodeo.
The vast majority of OHV riders who come to the county are very respectful, Bolton said. But just like with most things in life there are always going to be a few people who do not abide by the rules, he added.
“That was our whole goal … that this was set up in such manner where it was safe and set up for a family outing,” Bolton said of the OHV regulations in Rio Blanco County, which essentially treats OHVs like bicycles, he added.
Jones, of the Colorado Off Highway Vehicle Coalition, pointed to the support from county sheriffs across the state regarding the legislation approved earlier this year. While safety has been a continued concern during these discussions, once you dig into the data you don’t see large spikes in deaths in places that have increased OHV access, Jones added.
As for what regulations could be included in a future Garfield County ordinance, Jarman said he is waiting to review the draft ordinance with the committee before releasing specific details, such as age and insurance requirements.
“No, we have not reached consensus yet,” he said, “but we’re getting pretty close.”
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