Who should have the power to open roads to OHRVs: local officials or full town meetings?
In recent years New Hampshire’s Coos County has transformed into a mecca for off highway recreational vehicles (OHRVs). In addition to hosting a long system of trails, many North Country towns allow OHRVs to travel on regular roads. While this may have boosted roadside business, it has also increased conflict with town residents. In 2021 the Fish and Game Department announced it was so overwhelmed with calls, it would no longer respond to complaints about OHRVs on town roads; those calls would be left to local police. Now the New Hampshire Legislature is debating whether state law should require a full town meeting vote to open or close a road to OHRVs.
The OHRV boom in NH
About a decade ago, several New Hampshire ATV clubs, the Bureau of Trails, and state legislators came together to launch the Northeast’s largest interconnected trail system for OHRVs, known as “Ride the Wilds.” The initiative connected over 1,000 miles of trails on private property and state parks. Changes in state law also opened the door to OHRVs traveling on regular roads and highways in some areas, which made it easier for riders to stop for food or find the next trail without loading their OHRV onto a trailer.
Ride the Wilds sparked a flurry of economic activity in the North Country. Meals and rooms tax revenue from Coos County swung upwards, and there was a large increase in OHRV registrations. OHRV activity accelerated even more during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Not everyone is a fan of increased OHRV traffic, however. Since Ride the Wilds started marketing in 2013, there have been dozens of bills in the New Hampshire Legislature to add new safety requirements for drivers, stiffen penalties for property damage, and open or close certain areas to OHRVs.
One 2022 bill, HB 1109, was introduced to change the process to open or close town roads to OHRVs.
Changing the process to open roads to OHRVs
Under current state law, city or town councils and boards of selectmen can vote to open or close sidewalks, class IV, class V, and class VI highways to OHRVs. Generally speaking, class IV and class V highways are roads maintained by a town. Class VI highways include public ways that are not maintained or repaired by the town, like some dirt roads.
In 2019 the state passed a law that requires a public hearing at least 14 days before a vote to open or close a road to OHRVs. This 2019 law also requires notification to abutters – people who live next to the road – by verified mail.
As introduced, HB 1109 would require the “legislative body of a city or town” to vote on opening or closing roads to OHRVs, rather than the select board. There are a few different government structures for towns and cities in New Hampshire, but for most towns, the “legislative body” would be the voters. In other words, it would take a majority vote at a full town meeting to open or close roads to OHRVs.
On April 28 the Senate voted to rewrite HB 1109 so that the impact was much smaller. The amended bill states that a select board or other governing body may vote to close a road to OHRVs, or limit access, if an abutter can show damage from OHRVs that limits their ability to access their property. This rewritten bill might give property owners a new opportunity to ask to close a road to OHRVs, but the final decision would stay with the select board, not a town meeting.
The House must approve this rewritten bill, so the debate is not over.
Arguments for, against town meetings for OHRV access
Supporters of the original version of HB 1109 argue that town councils and select boards are too often swayed by OHRV lobbyists who show up in force at public hearings. A full town meeting would give property owners the power to vote directly on whether OHRVs should be allowed to travel on roads near their homes.
“People who live along roads open to OHRVs will definitely tell you the system is broken,” said Abby Evankow, a resident of Gorham, New Hampshire. She testified at both the House and Senate public hearings for HB 1109 and is part of a group of residents suing over noise, exhaust, and dust kicked up by OHRVs on roads near her home.
Opponents of HB 1109 are concerned that a town meeting process would give a small number of disgruntled residents too much power to close roads near their property. This would fracture the long, interconnected routes that make New Hampshire so appealing to OHRV riders.
Opponents also argue that New Hampshire should wait a few more years before considering another change to the process; public hearings and abutter notification have only been required since 2019.
Another bill, HB 1188, would set up a commission to study OHRV use in the state, including OHRV on town roads.
Update: Gov. Sununu signed an amended version of HB 1109 into law. You can explore the latest legislative proposals related to motor vehicle laws here.