A panel of Silverton officials presented pros and cons of allowing off-highway vehicle use in town during a packed forum on the issue in Dolores.
Dolores voters will decide in the April 7 election whether to allow OHVs on city streets, and sought insight from a town whose voters approved their use six years ago.
Silverton officials reported a mixed bag of impacts, but said the decision continues to cause divisiveness in the community.
DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce, reported OHV use in town has increased tourism and benefited businesses. But San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad said OHV use in town has caused problems for law enforcement officers and residents.
In 2014, Silverton voters approved OHV use on two main streets in town where the majority of businesses are, Gallegos said.
“It has helped businesses,” she said, including lodgers, shops, restaurants and RV parks.
The exact economic impact is difficult to quantify, officials said. OHVs are parked in front of restaurants, hotels and shops, and OHV riders contribute sales taxes to town coffers and enjoy the convenient use the vehicles.
By allowing them in town, Silverton has become more of a destination for OHV enthusiasts nationwide, officials said. They can operate day and night.
On the “other side” are community impacts, Gallegos said.
“It is not the Golden Goose. Are there quality of life issues — yes,” she said.
OHV use in town is a divisive issue that continues to be discussed, and might make the ballot again, officials said.
Gallegos advised towns to work together on the OHV issue and “agree to disagree,” then find compromise and solutions.
If Dolores votes to approve OHV use in town, staging areas where OHV riders can park their trucks and trailers and unload is important, officials said.
In his presentation, Sheriff Conrad said the large influx of OHVs in the small town has been problematic.
Behind the register, it’s positive, he said, but “to be blunt,” on the streets OHVs have been a challenge for law enforcement to control and have increased noise, dust, accidents and traffic for residents.
OHVs that leave designated routes is a big issue, Conrad said, despite the signage explaining where they are allowed.
“We brought in a second officer to patrol downtown,” he said. “It’s become kind of a zoo; we are a destination for this now. They know they can drive to the bar then back to the campsite.”
Other OHV issues for law enforcement are speeding, crashes, night riding, and drinking and driving. He also cited a lack of proper restraints and helmets for children and adults.
Conrad said during the tourism season half the violations in town are OHV-related. OHVs require a state permit to operate, and a town or county cannot charge an additional fee to cover increased law enforcement costs, he said.
There are responsible OHV users, Conrad said, noting that he is also a “motorhead” who enjoys riding OHVs and understands their appeal. Allowing them in town does improve access to the nearby backcountry for the elderly and disabled.
But overall, it has been difficult to manage.
“If you invite this industry into your community, know they are fast and aggressive,” he said. “I’ve given it a fair chance, but it is getting worse.”
During public discussion, it was pointed out that Dolores and Silverton are dissimilar in a lot of ways, and that plays into potential OHV impacts. Silverton is known for its popular Alpine Loop trails that travel high into the mountains with expansive vistas. By comparison, the terrain around Dolores is much flatter, and OHV trails and roads in the nearby San Juan National Forest passing through foothills and more level ground.
Colorado law allows for towns and cities to decide whether to allow OHV use local streets.
If the measure is approved, Dolores officials will decide which streets would be designated as OHV routes. Residents and businesses on OHV routes would be most affected by potential impacts, said Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin.
OHVs are allowed on all Montezuma County roads, approved by county commissioner in 2015. However, under state law they are not allowed to travel down state or federal highways, except if used for agricultural purposes. In Dolores, they could not travel Colorado Highway 145.
Routes could cross the highway though. CDOT does allow county and city OHV routes to cross the highway directly at an intersection.
Like Silverton, Dolores also has been divided on the OHV traffic.
Proponents say OHVs would help local business, attract tourism and improve access to OHV routes in San Juan National Forest.
Opponents say the noise, dust and increased OHV traffic threatens the peaceful character of Dolores, a densely inhabited community in a river valley where noise is an issue.
Nowlin said however the vote turns out public safety will remain his department;s main priority. Enforcing OHV routes and laws may require more staff time, he said.
“It’s up to the voters,” he said.