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Proposed ordinance hits pothole as commissioners postpone decision on opening Renville County roads to ATVs and off-highway vehicles

OLIVIA — The Renville County Board of Commissioners is postponing a decision on opening all county roads to off-highway vehicles for recreational use.

The motion to delay action for two weeks came after board members heard safety concerns about the prospect of all-terrain vehicles, side-by-side vehicles, mini-trucks, golf carts and utility task vehicles sharing paved and gravel roads with cars, trucks and farm machinery.

“Colossal, bad idea,’’ said Tom Kalahar, a county Soil and Water Conservation District director who said he was speaking as a Renville County citizen. Kalahar told the commissioners that they would be acting in opposition to the safety recommendations of the ATV industry, which warns against their use on paved or hard-packed surfaces.

Kalahar pointed out that the machines are designed for off-highway use, with high centers of gravity and low-pressure tires.

Kalahar and Wayne Zaske, a rural resident, were the only ones to testify at a public hearing on an ordinance being proposed to open the roads to the vehicles for recreational use. Currently, only those engaged in agricultural use can drive off-highway vehicles on county roads.

An Iowa-based group of trauma physicians, the ATV Injury Prevention Taskforce, had previously sent information to the commissioners detailing the safety concerns. The risk of death is 100 to 1,000 times higher for an ATV than an automobile per mile of driving on a roadway.

The commissioners are split on the issue of opening the roads to recreational use. Commissioners LaMont Jacobson and Bob Fox expressed support while Randy Kramer and Chairman John Stahl voiced concerns.

Commissioner Paul Setzepfandt is the likely swing vote on the issue: He’s heard from constituents who want to be able to use mini-trucks on the roads, but he expressed some apprehensions about the safety issues related to ATV use on paved roadways.

Jacobson said that opening the roads to off-highway vehicles gives rural residents an easy way to get around, and keeps ATVs out of the ditches. He said obstacles in ditches pose safety hazards, and that there is risk when the ATVs leave the ditches to cross roads.

“We should be able to appreciate and embrace our rural lifestyle,’’ said Jacobson in regards to opening the roads to off-highway vehicles.

He also spoke of personal responsibility. “People should have a sense of safety about them,’’ he said. “If the machine says they shouldn’t be doing some stuff, they know it ahead of time.’’

Kramer asked what benefits the county would see by opening the roads to the machines. He believes it would result mainly in people ages 16 to 20 riding the machines on the roads.

Nor would opening the roads to ATVs likely benefit a proposed park for off-highway vehicles in the county, he said. People are going to haul their machines on trailers rather than drive them from Buffalo Lake or Hector to a site south of Sacred Heart.

He also asked if the county would be opening itself to legal liabilities.

Some northern Minnesota counties allow ATVs on their roads, according to Mark Erickson, director of community development and environment for the county. He’s not aware of any counties that allow all types of recreational vehicles, although he said Murray and Pope counties are interested in what Renville County is considering.

Erickson also reported that the county’s trail committee recently recommended that the proposed ordinance be revised to limit ATVs to 40 miles per hour on paved roadways. The previous draft of the ordinance set the speed limit as the posted speed, or 55 miles per hour on paved county roads.

Erickson also reported that the cities of Olivia and Renville have asked that off-highway vehicles not be allowed on the county road segments in their downtown areas due to safety concerns. Danube had not responded to his request for input on the possibility.

If approved, the ordinance would allow off-highway vehicle owners ages 16 and over to drive on county roads with the following provisions: they obtain a county-issued permit for $10; they have a driver’s license; they have completed a safety training course; and they have a vehicle that meets safety requirements such as having rear-view mirrors.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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