All-terrain vehicles are spinning their wheels in Morristown, even as other nearby communities have invited the machines out of the woods and into their downtowns.
About 140 people attended an open-air public forum hosted by the Morristown Selectboard Tuesday night at Oxbow Riverfront Park. At a venue known for hosting live music, the mood was largely one of harmonious discord, with nearly 30 people politely lining up on both sides of the ATV debate.
Selectboard chair Bob Beeman said a townwide ballot vote on whether to open the roads to ATVs is likely to be held this summer, perhaps in August or September. Residents still must vote on the town of Stowe’s decision to leave the Lamoille South merged school district, but it’s still anybody’s guess as to when that will happen.
“Whatever an issue is, there’s going to be opposing sides. You’re going to have people for it or against it. It’s going to hurt people, it’s going to help,” said Madeline Simon, a Morristown resident in favor of opening roads to ATVs. “I just feel that, personally, it would help the town more than it would hurt.”
Modest plans or slippery slope?
Plans have been scaled back significantly from this past winter, when a proposal from the Green Mountain ATV riders group suggested opening roads in the Mud City and Morristown Corners area, in Cady’s Falls, and even right into the heart of the village.
Proposals now call for opening only small portions of Trombley Hill, Silver Ridge and Frazier roads on the north side of Route 15, as well as a new offshoot from Center Road to connect with Munson Avenue and all the shopping and dining options available there.
Club member and past president Shannon Friedrich said the ATV club is stymied by the dearth of trails in Morristown and limited private property access.
“We would love to be off main roads, there’s no question about it. Main roads are not our thing,” he said.
He and others, though, pointed to Newport as a success story, with that city’s police chief reporting very few tickets in the two summers — this is the second one — that ATVs have had access to downtown streets, sharing them with cars, cyclists and pedestrians.
“I’m not saying that it’s right for every community, but I believe this would be a good community for it to be tried in,” Friedrich said.
Robert Bortree said it might be a modest proposal now, but that could change if Morristown allows it.
“I think we’re opening Pandora’s box if we allow this to happen in Morrisville,” Bortree said. “While I’m not directly affected right now, I’m quite certain in the future I will be. I think we all will be if this is allowed to stand.”
Types of machines
Don McDowell drew a distinction between recreational ATVs and working machines, the latter used by farmers and loggers or emergency crews needing access to the backcountry. He said he hopes the town makes the distinction, too.
“Clearly, for me, they’re not the same issue. I see no reason, whatsoever, for working ATVs to not be allowed on public roads and more,” McDowell said.
As much of the safety talk from opponents to the machines on roads dealt with crashes and noise pollution, ATV advocates insist the machines are safer and quieter than ever.
Friedrich said the features on modern machines are “essentially no different than a typical motor vehicle,” with hydraulic brakes, power steering and emissions standards. Helmets have been mandatory since last year.
Lisa Desjardins, one of the most vocal Morristown residents in favor of increased access, said modern machines also have wider wheelbases, brighter LED headlights, and can be further tricked out with turn signals, five-point harnesses and roll cages — for side-by-side models.
“We’ve kind of gotten away from the older, short, tipsy kind of machines that blew blue smoke,” she said.
Despite ATV users’ assertions that today’s machines are quieter than previous models, and quieter than, say, Harley Davidson motorcycles, others say they are quite loud. Will Spaulding, who lives in the Cote Hill/Mud City area, said there’s a “very nice, very respectable” man who often drives a side-by-side, obeying the rules, and driving slower than the speed limit, “and it’s still louder than just about any vehicle that comes by.”
Roads less traveled
Some say it doesn’t make sense to argue connector routes will give access to ATV trails, since there are none in Morristown. Others in favor of access said getting to other towns where there are trails would be helpful — the Sunset Motor Lodge spillover parking lot was advertised as a “trailhead” even though it only served as a launching point to Silver Ridge Road.
One person in the audience referred to “a road to nowhere,” because even if Trombley or Center roads are opened on the Morristown side, once you get to the Hyde Park town line, the paved sections of those roads are not open to ATV use.
Mike Manning and others, though, shared a sort of “chicken or the egg” outlook. Manning said part of the reason Morristown doesn’t have a robust trail network is because there’s no access into town.
Manning said land fragmentation all through the state makes it tough to get a consistent trail network like the one enjoyed by snowmobilers.
“I just think Morrisville residents need to take a look beyond,” Manning said. “I think all the club is trying to do is get a start. And, maybe in the meantime, you’ll have a trail system.”
Desjardins said on two recent group trips to Barton and Newport with 15-16 riders, the group dropped more than $1,000 in restaurants. Mike Putvain said he was part of that group, and he and his daughter regularly go out on long trips and she “eats candy like it’s going out of style.”
Shelly Severinghaus, who lives on Mud City Loop, said riders may like to eat and spend money at restaurants, but asked about the “displacement” of other customers who drive up to a place and see a bunch of ATVs in the parking lot and decide not to go there?
For Kathleen O’Neil, the math didn’t add up.
“How do you say that we’re going to be bringing in a negligible amount of additional ATV traffic, yet it’s going to bring in so much business and it’s going to be so good for the community?” she said.
Some spoke about the recreation that Morristown has attracted, namely bicycling, largely because of the success of the 17-mile stretch of Lamoille Valley Rail Trail between Morristown and Cambridge.
Robert Spears said that crowd arguably spends more than ATV riders, at local bars, breweries and restaurants.
“That’s real money,” Spears said. “That’s not chips and candy.”
Hiking and running and cycling are fine, but several ATVers noted that their hobby is also an outdoor recreational activity.
“They’re not on iPhones, iPads, they’re not in the house watching TV. We are out riding, enjoying nature,” Putvain said. “We see bears, moose, I mean how many partridge and rabbits did we see last weekend?”
Safety, peace and quiet
Enforcement is an issue when it comes to ATV riders, too, because cops are not inclined to give chase if one tries to speed off at the sight of a police cruiser — it’s a safety thing, heavy police vehicle versus a diminutive roofless, doorless ATV.
Friedrich said most riders follow the rules, despite their reputation.
“There are some opinions, in talking to some folks, that ATVers tend to be wilder, and I typically don’t see that,” he said.
Tom Cloutier, whose home abuts Silver Ridge Road, said there are many “upstanding, rule-abiding and respectful” ATV riders, but he said there are also more irresponsible and disrespectful riders than ATV enthusiasts let on.
“What we have personally found out is that it’s not just a few bad eggs that ruin it for everybody,” Cloutier said. “Our experience is there are a lot of bad eggs, who do not care what the impact on other lives is.”
He said when the town opened Silver Ridge Road for a trial in 2019, residents were not asked their preferences for rules on the road and the road soon “became a superhighway for ATVs.” He said he and his wife Cynthia — eventually joined by others — spent two years trying to get that trial period stopped. The town ultimately pulled the plug on Silver Ridge in late April, before this year’s riding season started.
“This is our chosen retirement home. It was meant to be our last move,” Cloutier said. “We hope we will not be forced to leave because of somebody else’s hobby.”