ATV riders: Renville County's roads are all yours. Mini-trucks, utility vehicles and — on some stretches — golf carts are welcome, too.
In a 3-2 vote this week, the County Board approved an ordinance allowing all-terrain and other off-road vehicles on county roads, despite concerns from safety advocates and even ATV manufacturers that they're poorly suited for pavement. The move was cheered by rider groups wanting better connections between trails, and closely watched by neighboring counties and cities considering similar rules.
Renville joins a growing number of Minnesota counties in letting recreational riders on their roads, bringing them out of the ditch and onto the shoulder. State law already allows ATVs on roads for agricultural use.
Talk about a broader county ordinance began with farmers who wanted to also ride mini-trucks, said Paul Setzepfandt, a Renville County commissioner. "I don't believe we will see a lot of people come storming into Renville County just to ride ATVs," said Setzepfandt, who was considered the board's swing vote.
Drivers, who must be licensed, will need a two-year, $10 permit to ride the roads. They must keep their vehicles on the "extreme right-hand side" of the road and use lights when it's dark.
In response to safety concerns raised at a recent public hearing, the board added a 40-mile-per-hour speed limit and restricted golf carts to within a mile of a course.
Such changes didn't satisfy John Stahl, a commissioner who voted against the ordinance. Stahl understands the usefulness of ATVs for "the people who need them," including farmers spot-spraying crops, among other things. But he worries about recreational riders on roads — especially at rural intersections in the summer, when corn stalks limit visibility. Add in heavy truck traffic, and accidents are bound to happen, he said.
A national study recently raised similar concerns. The number of ATV deaths on roads has increased two times faster than off-road deaths, according to a report released this month by the Consumer Federation of America.
The report's authors blamed a surge in states allowing ATVs on roads under certain conditions. They counted at least 18 cities, counties and states trying to expand ATV access. That trend is evident in Minnesota, where the All Terrain Vehicle Association of Minnesota has noticed more counties opening up their roads.
In Renville County, an ATV club proposed a trail grid that used some stretches of county roads.
"Their focus was connecting cities to the river valley and our park system," said Mark Erickson, the west-central Minnesota county's director of environment and community development. That led to a conversation about opening up all county roads to a greater variety of vehicles.
Many riders "didn't know or understand the statutes" about road use and were inadvertently disobeying the law, Erickson said. "They've been out on these roads in the past. Now it will be legalized for them to do it."