CONCORD — Off-highway recreational vehicles have created an economic boom for the North Country, or a growing threat to the tranquility many sought when they moved there.
That debate played out on Tuesday as two House committees heard testimony on several OHRV-related bills that would impose regulations on noise, step up enforcement, enhance notification to property owners and ban OHRV use on certain roadways.
Since its dedication in 2013, the Ride the Wilds network, with its 1,000-plus miles of interconnected trails in Coos County, has grown in popularity while emphasizing the positive effects OHRV tourism has had on some of the most economically depressed parts of New Hampshire.
The state has encouraged the effort, with 80 acres of OHRV trails at Jericho Mountain State Park in Berlin. The three-day Jericho ATV Festival in August draws thousands of enthusiasts and suppliers to the park and surrounding areas.
But the rumbling is not limited to the popular machines, as property owners along state and local roadways, newly opened to ATV traffic, are making their voices heard.
A superior court judge ruled in October that a lawsuit filed by a group of Gorham neighbors who want an OHRV trailhead moved away from their homes can proceed in Coos County Superior Court.
“I was motivated to file these bills because the biggest indicator that current policies are not working is when neighbors start suing each other and their town,” said Rep. Wayne Moynihan, D-Dummer, who’s sponsored five bills related to OHRV regulation, all of which were the subject of public hearings on Tuesday.
Crowds on each side of the debate moved from one committee room to another as the bills were heard.
One bill would grant stronger notification rights to abutters if trails are under consideration near their property (HB 683); another would lower the noise limit to 82 decibels (current limit is 96) and forbid noise-amplifying modifications (HB 591); and a third calls for a study of the economic and environmental impacts of OHRV use in New Hampshire (HB 660).
Those three are under consideration by the House Committee on Resources, Recreation and Development.
The Transportation Committee is considering two other bills related to highway use and licensing. HB 498 would prohibit OHRV operation on Class V roadways (town-owned and town-maintained roads), while HB 592 requires any person operating an OHRV have a valid driver’s license.
Emotions ran high in the hearing rooms, with exhibits that included a playback of OHRV engine noise and photos of youngsters piloting their own ATVs through busy downtown Colebrook.
Those testifying against the bills included North Country Sen. David Starr, Berlin Mayor Paul Grenier, Colebrook Selectman Ray Gorman, Gorham Town Manager Mark Shea, and Stephen Clorite, president of the North Country OHRV Coalition, which maintains the trails that comprise Ride the Wilds.
All testified to the vital economic impact the ATV revolution has had in Coos County, and the widespread support they claim it enjoys among residents.
Clorite said he was speaking on behalf of North Country chambers of commerce and the ATV clubs in support of the largest connected riding area in the Northeast.
“It’s the connectivity of our trail system that draws people to the region,” he said. “Without that connectivity, there really is no Ride the Wilds, no economic benefit, no thousand-mile trail system.”
Before 2013, ATV use on most state and local roadways was restricted. In 2013 state law was changed to allow the off-road vehicles to be on-road for the distances required to move from one trail area to another.
“OHRV riders do not want to be on roads, we want to be in the woods,” said Clorite. “We want to experience that view, find that hidden lake. But in order to ride the entire system and spread the economic benefit throughout Coos County, it’s necessary to open some roadways.”
Once the interconnection among trails was established, some communities by vote of selectmen or town meeting decided to open additional roadways to give ATV riders access to food and lodging and “bring the economic impact to more of the community,” said Clorite.
Costs versus benefits
But many of the people living along those roadways say the impact on their quality of life, from May to October, has been severe.
“Coos County has benefited economically from the growth of ATV riding,” said Will Abbott, vice president with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, one of the state’s largest landholders. “But there are costs in fueling this economic engine, costs which could overcome benefits if they are not directly addressed soon.”
On a busy weekend during ATV season, it’s not uncommon for more than 1,000 ATVS a day to ride on the trail hubs and on connecting trails linking the hubs, according to Abbott.
“Turning rail trails and public roads that run through residential neighborhoods into OHRV trails has destroyed the very reason that most of us built and bought our homes in New Hampshire,” said Abby Evankow of Gorham.
“We claim to be the live free or die state, yet with OHRV trails revving through our neighborhoods four to five months of the year, Coos residents are no longer free to even open their windows on a summer day.”
Berlin Mayor Grenier lent his support to an amendment proposed by state Rep. Jack Flanagan, R-Brookline, to send all the bills to a study commission including all stakeholders to develop consensus legislation.
Rep. Steve Smith, R-Charlestown, a former chair of the Transportation Committee, said that was tried in 2016, and no agreement could be reached. “The commission was a waste of my summer because it accomplished nothing, and there was no consensus,” he said.
Abbott describes the dilemma this way:
“The rural character and culture of Coos County communities, often the main thing that attracts and retains residents, landowners and visitors, is changing because of the growth in ATV recreation,” he said. “Small changes to culture north of the notches may be acceptable to many; large changes may be less so. Finding a sweet spot that accommodates the level of change acceptable to a majority will not be easy.”