Kathy Vargo grew up in southern Minnesota, where snowmobiles were as common as bikes. She and her husband own a pair of them, and they love roaring across the countryside. She just doesn't think snowmobiles should be racing past her back yard in Shakopee at 50 miles per hour.

"The machine we sold not too long ago was almost as heavy as a car," she said. "We've seen exponential growth in this area in the past couple of years, and more than a few near misses."

Already her one-woman campaign has succeeded in slicing the speed limit near her home in half, to 25 mph. And with this year's snowfall causing a spike in traffic, she isn't done. "I have a lot more up my sleeve," she said.

All across the outer suburbs of the Twin Cities, tensions between snowmobilers and property owners are boiling over this winter, thanks to the thickest snow cover in six to 10 years, a boom in snowmobile ownership and a decade of rapid population growth. The issues are safety, speed, noise, damage to public and private property -- and, a bit further out, incursions onto private property.

'The majority of snowmobile owners are very responsible folks," said Bob VanDenBroeke, chief deputy sheriff in Carver County. "But with all the early snowfall this year, we issued as many citations by the end of December as the entire winter last year -- and more than the year before that."

Early-season citizen complaints in Carver soared from two last winter to 80 this winter. Sherburne's sheriff issued a public plea to "respect the rights of property owners" after recording 29 arrests or citations, and 23 complaints so far this season.

Cities are reacting as well. Before the season began, Victoria banned the sleds from its downtown, and Prior Lake set up a special hotline to field complaints. In Savage, where a bank reported $8,000 in damage to its grounds, the city plans to review its guidelines.

The bottom line, many agree: Conditions are perfect for a clash in the semi-rural fringe, which draws many for its quiet enjoyment of nature -- and many others for its freedom from urban restrictions.

"I used to have one and enjoyed it," said Dennis Hayunga of Prior Lake, who has snowmobiles roaring past his home well after midnight. "But too many people are using them these days. This has got to get straightened out before it gets out of hand."

Snowmobiling as a sport in Minnesota is in the midst of its second great boom. After peaking at close to 300,000 registrations in 1976, the sport gradually dropped off to a low point of fewer than 170,000 in the mid-1980s. Today, however, after a long slow climb, it's nearing 300,000 again -- just in time for a thick blanket of snow to ignite new conflicts.

Battling speed and alcohol

For most, Minnesota's culture of snowmobiling is about nature and family fun. But for some, sledding is a full-throttle culture built around speed, adrenaline and saloon runs.

"It only takes a few bad riders to give a bad impression for the rest of us," said Roger Sprague of the Big Lake Sno-Cruisers Snowmobile Club.

Sprague, a snowmobile safety instructor, urges zero tolerance for drinking while sledding, a deadly combination, especially in residential areas.

In Chisago County, 2-year-old Ryan Anderson of Lindstrom was killed in January 2002 while sliding with his family in a park that was supposed to be off-limits to snowmobiles. A 17-year-old Lindstrom boy charged in the killing admitted drinking three beers before he ran over Ryan, then sped away from the scene. And 10-year-old Josh Renken was killed by a drunken snowmobiler in January 1997 as he played outside his home in Big Lake.

Excessive speed, night driving and alcohol are to blame for most snowmobile accidents, said Mike Hammer, education coordinator for the Minnesota DNR's Division of Enforcement. Minnesota has always had a 50-mph speed limit on public lands, trails and waters for snowmobilers, he said, but they can go as fast as they dare on private property.

Minnesota's bloodiest season on record was the winter of 1996-97, when 32 people were killed. After that, the state ramped up snowmobile safety training requirements and the numbers have gone down, Hammer said. So far this winter, Minnesota has had five snowmobile-related fatalities.

Divided interests in conflict

To an extent, snowmobilers themselves feel put upon as the metro area invades their semi-rural turf. A major new highway blocks off a long-used trail outside Shakopee. Scott County's decision to line sections of its county roads with asphalt trails for bikers and hikers leads to bans on sleds, which ruin the surface.

"We've invested a lot of money downtown," Steve Sarvi, city administrator in rapidly growing Victoria, said of his City Council's November decision to impose a snowmobile ban. "All-new streetscape, sidewalks, lighting -- that's a significant investment, and unfortunately those spikes on snowmobiles riding up over curbs do a lot of damage."

But there's another side to it as well: People who've lived in the country a long time find themselves inundated by machines that are often ridden by outsiders driven into their territory by clampdowns in suburbs closer to the center.

Scott County, for example, a leading suburban county for snowmobile ownership, also has at least 1,000 outsiders regularly using its trails.

"I can see that guys want to have fun," said Donald Cusack, who lives on a hobby farm south of Prior Lake. "But they're running up and down at all hours of the night. I have a raised driveway that they think is a ramp to jump off of, and they chew up the blacktop."

Gerald Davis, a maintenance supervisor for the city of Elk River, has been battling with trespassing snowmobilers and their loud machines since building his new home on the southern outskirts of Princeton in 2003.

But it was Dec. 4 -- the morning after his mother's funeral -- when Davis looked out his window into his front yard, and his grief turned to outrage. Sometime in the night, three or four snowmobiles had roared into his yard, past his twinkling Santa-sleigh yard ornaments, in apparent defiance of blue reflectors and no-trespassing signs he had put on his property to keep them away. The tracks ripping through his lawn were all the evidence they left.

"We have a right to some quietness out here," Davis said. "We have a right to say, 'Yeah, maybe you can ride in the ditches, it's still legal -- but not in my yard.'"

Deputies have put in 24 hours of patrol time on Davis' property, where they sometimes use hidden cameras. So far, they haven't caught any culprits.

In Sherburne County, authorities say the three most common complaints are trespassing, speeding and loud sleds that have been modified with after-market exhaust systems.

Sprague, of the Big Lake club, in the northern metro, said it's critical for his peers to stay on marked trails. "If we don't, it only takes a few bad snowmobilers to upset landowners, and pretty soon, we don't have trails. We'll all be riding in the ditches."

In Shakopee, Kathy Vargo reports that slicing the speed limit for snowmobiles in her area from 50 to 25 mph has helped to some extent, but some people ignore it.

"The snowmobilers claim they have no other place to go," she said, "but we feel like they're imposing on our privacy and peace. We feel we have to do this." For the moment, she won't say what her next step might be. "I'm planning a lot of stuff, but one problem I've had in the past is tipping my hand to 'them.'"

dapeterson@startribune.com • 952-882-9023 jpowell@startribune.com • 952-882-9017