Ditch riding in Minnesota banned

As recent Minnesota winters became milder, and ATVs more popular, snowmobile riders quickly turned toward ATVs to cure the riding itch. In Washington County — located just outside the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul — these ATV-riding snowmobilers used the same ditches otherwise used for sleds.
Last year, the Minnesota State Legislature passed a law giving local governments the power to restrict ATV ditch riding. Washington County was the first county to use the legislated power after its county board voted 4-1 to ban ditch riding by ATVs on all roads for which Washington County is responsible.
Estimates put the number of registered ATVs in the county at 6,100. A large number of ATV enthusiasts attended meetings leading up to the vote, but could not convince a majority of board members to vote down the ban.
According to the ordinance, its purpose is to “provide for health, safety and welfare of its citizens, and to ensure the integrity of its roads and streets and the appropriate use of the rights of way, the County strives to keep its public right of way in a state of good repair.”
County Engineer Don Theisen said that about two years ago a resident complained to the county about damage to the ditch in front of his house. But Theisen said he wasn’t sure how many residents approached county commissioners since that point. Resident complaints were the main reason the ordinance was proposed. “The biggest issue, more than the safety issue, was the damage to the driveway approaches and the ditches themselves,” he said, adding that the safety aspect of ATV use lies in culverts and poles within the ditches.
“There is a risk of injury when ATVs ride the ditches,” he said. “I think there was one report of an injury involved with an ATV and ditch riding this year.”
Theisen said the same safety issues did not apply to snowmobiles simply because there is snow cover on the ground in the winter.
Clark Collins, executive director of the Blue Ribbon Coalition told Powersports Business that actions like the ordinance in Washington County are becoming commonplace across the county.
“This is why ATV enthusiasts need to become active in local politics,” he said. “The more people we have supporting the cause, the more officials see there is power in the votes coming from enthusiasts.”
Collins adds that this ruling is particularly disturbing because many snowmobiles use the same ditches in the winter as a means of connecting dedicated trails. Therefore, he does not see any additional safety concerns simply because an ATV is used rather than a snowmobile.
Officials from the county said there are rut and erosion problems from ATVs in some ditches and efforts to repair the damage haven’t worked because ATV riders negate the repairs within a few days. “We tried to repair a mile-long section of ditch, but it kept getting damaged again,” said Theisen. “In the end, the ordinance made sense for myself and the people doing the repairs.”
With organization, Collins says the ditches and roadway approaches could be hardened to reduce problems caused by wet weather.
“Simply put, the ATV community needs to organize and address concerns by non-enthusiasts,” says Collins. “When that happens, the trail repair will become proactive instead of reactive and you’ll have less rut problems and it will create even safer trails.”
However, according to Theisen, in meetings with a local ATV club, he got the impression that ATV riders weren’t interested in ditch riding. Rather, the club would rather spend time and effort building dedicated trails. But there is no area set aside in Washington County for that riding experience, said Theisen. “I am not sure how feasible it is for a club to harden ditches,” he said. “I think the time and effort would rather be spent on another area to ride.”
Currently, there are some 184,000 registered ATVs in the state of Minnesota. Other counties in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area have not expressed concern about damage to roadway ditches by ATVs. Washington County is the only one to propose any ordinances. And statewide, there are no proposals against ditch riding.
At the same time, however, Collins does see a need for self-policing, especially when it comes to exhaust noise output.
“I know ATVers who cringe at loud ATVs running in the ditches in front of their houses,” he said. “If people who ride ATVs are bothered by loud pipes, you know non-enthusiasts are.”
In addition, Clark says that ATV riders need to stay out of the trails when it is wet and muddy. “Plain and simple, improper use can damage soil and ATV riders need to be sensitive to that fact.” said Collins.
But he is not in favor of seasonal trail closures on a widespread basis. Wholesale closure is another way of “tightening the noose” around ATV riders’ necks, he said.
When the ban takes effect Jan. 1, 2004, first time offenders will face a petty misdemeanor and a $120 fine. Any violations after the first one will result in a full misdemeanor. The board agreed on a two-year study to determine what effects the ban has had in reducing damage and finding out if riders are complying with the ban. The study will be presented in March of 2006.

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