The region's fledgling ATV system is experiencing some growing pains in Stewartstown, with complaints arising from residents of two separate areas who gathered for a discussion at the town office on Thursday evening.
Residents of Bear Rock Road, which was opened to ATV traffic this past year, are unhappy with the resulting noise, dust and speed. Piper Hill residents are dealing with the same issues, despite the fact that there are no legal ATV trails in that area.
Bear Rock Road resident Robert Petrofsky hosted the informal gathering, which drew around a dozen people including the three selectmen, county commissioner and Piper Hill resident Rick Samson, and Metallak ATV Club president Craig Washburn of Colebrook. Also in the room were residents of Pittsburg and Colebrook, who said they were interested in hearing what people had to say.
Bear Rock Road Concerns
"I just want to hear from other people who have been affected," Mr. Petrofsky said. "There has been a tremendous negative impact." He and his wife Pam own ATVs and have ridden the local trail system, he noted, and were among those attending the town's public hearing last November who supported the move.
"I voted to have it opened with the assurance that if there were any problems, the road would be closed by the selectmen," Mr. Petrofsky said. "We were also assured there would be patrols, that Fish & Game would be there to check speed." He said conservation officers did patrol that area at least once, but no tickets were issued.
"Even now, after Labor Day, on a Saturday we have over 100 ATVs going by the house," he said. "They're going 20, 25 and 30 miles per hour. It's quite an annoyance, not to mention the dust and the pollution."
Mark Hunt lives on the section of South Hill Road in Colebrook that is open to ATV travel, and said things have changed over the course of the summer. "I wasn't upset at first, because everyone seemed to be courteous," he said. "When you met them on the road they used to move right over, because they knew they were enjoying the privilege of riding on the road."
Now, Mr. Hunt said, it's not unusual to meet two machines riding side by side in the road, and "they're coming faster and faster." Mr. Petrofsky concurred, adding, "They've taken over the roads. They're not roads anymore, they're trails."
Mr. Hunt asked whether opening the roads to ATVs was to be done on a trial basis this year, "or is it set in stone?" Citing minutes of the November public hearing, Mr. Petrofsky said he believed this was a trial move, not a permanent one. "It was proposed as a trial, and that was okay with me," he said.
Selectman Allen Coats noted that the public notices for the November hearing clearly stated that the board's decision would be based "on the sentiments of voters at that meeting." Although state law allows the selectmen to open and close roads at will, he said, they agreed they would do so based only on a vote by citizens, at either a public hearing or the annual town meeting in March.
"Why would anyone think we wouldn't insist on a public hearing to close the roads, just as we insisted on a public hearing to open them?" Mr. Coats asked. "Don't expect us to arbitrarily close a road when we had a public hearing."
With only two people complaining about Bear Rock Road, which he pointed out is paid for by the entire town, "are we supposed to override the 35 or 40 people from the public hearing?" He added that Stewartstown has about 400 people on the checklist, and said, "for 40 people out of 400 to attend that meeting shame on you. It should have been 200."
Mr. Petrofsky reiterated his belief that off-highway recreational vehicles "belong off the highways. They do not belong on town roads where they affect our lifestyle, our quality of life, and our sanity," he said.
Those who agree, he said, should petition an article onto the town meeting warrant to close all of Stewartstown's roads to ATVs. Selectboard chairman Hasen Burns said he would welcome such an measure, stating, "That way everybody gets to vote on it. Our job is to go with the majority."
Mr. Samson asked whether there is any way to re-route the trails away from roads, and Mr. Washburn said there are no state funds available for building new trails. "I have a route to propose," Mr. Petrofsky said, "but I have to talk to a couple of landowners. I think it's very feasible."
Piper Hill Troubles
Errant riders and a lack of law enforcement to stop them seem to be the problem on Piper Hill, where there are no legal trails at present and residents are fed up.
"On Labor Day weekend I had around 75 machines going by my house, most in excess of 50 miles per hour," said Dennis Thompson, who said the riders are rude when stopped and confronted. "They don't care. I'm tired of it. I'm tired of listening to it day and night."
Mr. Thompson said the occasional rider went by before the Ride the Wilds trail system opened this past summer, but since then traffic is constant. "If they rode down the streets of Nashua on an ATV, they'd have the SWAT all over them," he said. "Up here, they feel like they can do whatever the hell they want."
Peggy Moon, who lives at the intersection of Piper Hill and Ladd roads, said the ATVs travel right under her bedroom window. "Over the Labor Day weekend, I just about went out of my mind," she said. "I called the Colebrook Police Department and they referred me to Fish & Game."
Conservation Officer Chris Egan returned her call, Ms. Moon said, but said he was assigned to Lancaster Fair and that only two officers were on duty in all of Coös County. Sharon Leicht, who lives just down the road, said she could hear the machines that weekend and that the noise was "horrendous."
Pointing to Mr. Washburn, Ms. Moon related what she said to two riders she managed to stop: "These local people worked really hard for you to have a thousand miles of trail, and still you go where you're not supposed to go."
The riders only increased her ire by stating that they had joined the local club, but didn't know where they were allowed to ride. "If you joined the club," Ms. Moon said, "then you should know it's your business to know."
Mr. Samson noted that he and his wife Linda have machines, and they trailer them on and off Piper Hill when they want to ride. "But I've encountered problems on our hill as well," he said. "Some of the local people are just as responsible for our problems as people from down below. We're not going to solve the issue by screaming and hollering at each other."
Mr. Thompson asked Mr. Washburn, "What made you think for a second that you could control this thing?" To the selectmen, he said, "I want to know what you're going to do about the roads that you don't have open."
Mr. Coats defended the local Fish & Game officers, pointing out, "What they have to do comes out of Concord." Mr. Petrofsky related that he's spoken privately to three conservation officers, "and they were against opening the roads."
Riders are obviously ignoring signs, Mr. Washburn agreed, but asked, "How many more signs can we put out there?" The club has patrols, but he agreed with Mr. Thompson's assertion that as citizen volunteers, they have no legal authority.
While some suggested that the region should not focus entirely on tourism, Mr. Samson said, "We should resign ourselves to the fact that manufacturing is never coming back to the Upper Coös." The trail system and its economic benefits are needed, he said, "but it's not going to work if each of the towns meet and open or close their trails at will."
He agreed that law enforcement is necessary, and pointed out that 250 machines are registered in Stewartstown alone. "All the agencies need to get together to solve the problem," he said.
Mr. Washburn said grant funds are in place to fund ATV patrols in Coös County next summer. He said the Piper Hill situation is especially unfortunate, because the club had hoped to put a trail there in the future. "That's what I told these people," Ms. Moon said. "You're messing it up for everybody."