All-terrain vehicles could soon be legal to drive on county roads in Winchester Bay.
Supporters of a Douglas County government proposal to allow ATVs on the roadways say it could increase the flow of tourism dollars into local businesses. Opponents, including members of the Winchester Bay Fire District Board, say it will jeopardize safety for both local residents and ATV drivers.
Douglas County officials will hold an open house meeting on the proposal from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday at the Marina Activity Center at the Winchester Bay RV Resort, 120 Marina Way in Winchester Bay.
Douglas County Commissioner Chris Boice said Oregon law gives the county public works director authority to allow ATV traffic on county roads, simply by putting up a sign stating they’re allowed in a certain area. He said the county will probably go ahead and do that for a trial period and see how things go. Proposed rules setting limits on ATVs could then be put before the Douglas County Board of Commissioners for a vote.
“If we do that, and I’m leaning that way, then I would ask the board to adopt an ordinance to impose the rules that we’ve outlined,” Boice said.
Among those rules would be that only licensed drivers with insurance would be allowed to drive ATVs on the roads, and they would be restricted to roads that get them to downtown businesses or their homes, including vacation homes. Residential areas would not be open for cruising by nonresidents. ATV riders would also be limited to driving on roads from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. and those hours might be shortened in the winter to avoid having them out after dark, Boice said.
Boice said Lake County allows ATVs to drive on roads in and around Lakeview. Lakeside in Coos County is also considering allowing ATVs on the roads.
DuneFest Coordinator Jody Morrow, who originally proposed the idea, said it grew out of her conversation with struggling local businesses like restaurants and hotels.
“It started with trying to find a way to draw people out of the sand and get them into the local businesses. It is all about capturing those tourism dollars and trying to keep them within the community,” she said.
Morrow is an ATV enthusiast herself and lives a few miles south of Winchester Bay. The community is the state’s most popular site for ATV tourists, she said. One third of all ATV tourism in the state takes place in the small community, and ATV tourism is its prime economic driver.
Morrow, who is also a member of the Douglas County Parks Advisory Board, believes allowing ATVers to drive on the roads would encourage them to patronize local shops and restaurants, improving those business’ bottom lines.
Currently, she said, some private RV campgrounds that don’t offer direct access to the sand have trouble attracting ATV tourists. Motels have the same problem. ATVers also may wind up packing a lunch to the sand rather than eating out, because it’s difficult to get to the restaurant after they’ve already taken their ATVs to the beach.
She also said better ATV access to town would be a selling point that could be marketed to potential tourists.
Members of the Winchester Bay Fire District Board, however, unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday opposing allowing ATVs to be driven on county roads. Board members raised concerns about the safety of having ATV riders sharing the road with other vehicles.
Fire board member Gary Goorhuis said Winchester Bay residents are very supportive of ATV enthusiasts and welcome them in town. They just don’t want them on the streets, he said.
“For decades the ATVs have not been allowed beyond the campgrounds around town, and this has always been safe, keeping normal street traffic and ATV traffic separate,” he said.
He said during DuneFest especially, when 10,000 tourists converge on the town, there could be between 3,000 and 4,000 ATVs on the roadways if the proposal is approved. That would put everybody at risk, he said, especially the ATV drivers.
“They’re the ones that will suffer the most,” he said. “It’ll just be a matter of time before an ATV gets run over by a larger vehicle.”
A truck hauling a trailer, or a motor home, might not see an ATV before making a right hand turn and rolling right over it, he said.
Goorhuis said first responders are also concerned that the additional traffic could make it difficult to respond quickly to emergencies.
“With 3-4,000 ATVs on the streets they don’t know if they could get to an accident in time to help people,” he said.
Goorhuis also expressed concern that the county government would be liable for any accidents.
“Are they prepared to take responsibility for the damage, the injuries and possible deaths, resulting in lawsuits for negligence and permanent disabilities and wrongful deaths? That would be awfully hard to defend if you allow un-legal vehicles on city streets and it results in somebody’s death,” he said.
Morrow said the drivers will be at least 16 years old, since they have to have a license, and the majority of ATV users are in a two to four seat side-by-side that’s similar to the size of a Jeep.
“So we’re not talking a three wheeler or a little kid,” Morrow said.
Boice said most smaller four-wheelers and all motorcycles have paddle tires on them for dune riding and would not want to take them onto pavement, where they could be damaged.
Boice said Monday’s meeting will be in an open house format with informational stations set up and a chance for citizens to discuss the proposal with him and with other county officials from the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office and the Douglas County Public Works and Douglas County Parks Departments.