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Wasilla's proposed off-road vehicle ban under fire

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- A proposal to ban off-road vehicles in the growing yet still rough-edged confines of Wasilla is getting major pushback from the motorized community.

More than 40 ban opponents packed Monday night’s Wasilla City Council meeting, even though there was no specific hearing on the agenda for the proposed ordinance that would bar off-road vehicles anywhere in the city where they’re now a common sight.

Amid strong opposition, Council members Colleen Sullivan-Leonard and Leone Harris said Monday night that the city should table the ban indefinitely and go back to the drawing board. Sullivan-Leonard said she didn't think there was enough data to justify a ban and Mayor Verne Rupright's "knee-jerk reaction" to the issue was pitting "neighbors against neighbors and businesses against businesses.

That drew protests from the rest of the Council. Several noted a hearing wasn’t on the agenda for the evening’s meeting and any decision would be based on skewed testimony.

The Council voted 4-2 to schedule a public hearing for the proposed ban on Aug. 25.

“We missed all the people that would show up at the next meeting and testify,” Council member A. Clark “Buzz” Buswell said.

“I’ve had a lot of (ban supporters) talk to me,” Gretchen O’Barr agreed. “We’re only getting one side here.”

The city is sure to get an earful at that hearing next month.

Thomas Hannam, an ORV tour operator who owns Alaska Toy Rental Inc. in downtown Wasilla, says a petition he’s circulating now has about 2,000 signatures. A Facebook page called “Stop the Wasilla ATV ban” had generated 1,170 likes as of this week.

Ban opponents say Wasilla’s lifestyle is pegged around riding ATVs and snowmachines in the city. Several on Monday night warned a ban could hurt local businesses and tourism and urged the city to simply enforce existing laws.

Wasilla requires ORV riders to wear helmets, have lights, stay off paved bike paths, obey a 10 mph speed limit (5 mph in parking lots), and come to a stop before crossing roads and driveways -- and no jumping. Riders under 16 must be accompanied by a parent or responsible adult.

Under the city’s 1999 trails plan, off-road vehicles are allowed along Lucille Street, Knik-Goose Bay Road and the Parks Highway but not the rest of Wasilla.

Riders violate most -- if not all -- of those laws on a regular basis, ban critics say.

“The enforcement has never really been there,” said Sarah Butts, who lives just outside city limits.

Ban opponents also say it’s unclear where Wasilla begins and ends, with few signs marking the boundaries of the 13-square-mile city.

“As Wasilla continues to expand, is there going to be an increase in signage?” asked another resident who lives just outside city limits.  

Mayor Rupright says the city’s grown too big for the road damage, dust and safety threats posed by people zooming around on ATVs and snowmachines. Wasilla police fielded nearly 250 complaints related to in-city ORV use in the last two years, according to a city report.

The city’s planning commission voted 4-1 on July 8 to recommend a ban.  

Wasilla resident Randy Robinson, a member of the parks and recreation commission, told the Council Monday night that in a three-hour period one day in June, she “was almost hit by seven different ORVs.”

Robinson, one of just two people testifying in support of the ban, also referenced an incident during the Why Not Tri triathlon held in mid-June in the city where a 15-year-old Wasilla boy on a white Yamaha ATV sped by bike racers and reportedly struck one. An Alaska State Troopers report said the rider didn’t stop without a brief pursuit; he was later arrested for driving under the influence.

Members of the ATV community say that incident highlights what several on Monday night called the real problem in Wasilla: young riders who need to be educated and penalized if they don’t follow the law.

“The trend here is children,” said Leif Backlin, who lives just outside city limits near Seldon Road. “That’s the problem ... it should not be banned. It just needs to be enforced.”

Council member Brandon Wall noted, however, that he’d stopped nine people exhibiting bad behavior on off-road vehicles during his time on the Council. All of them were adults, Wall said. Five didn’t take the conversation well, tearing off down the road after a less-than-polite response, he said.

During a break, Wasilla Police Chief Gene Belden said the department took three more calls about ORVs over the weekend. One rider spun out on gravel and damaged a driver’s windshield. Another caller said he saw off-roaders wrecking new grass near the airport. He tried to stop them. They flipped him off, he reported.

It’s tough making those arrests, Belden said.

“They’re mobile and by the time we can get to them we don’t know who they are,” said the chief, who grew up in Wasilla. “I agree with these people here -- it’s tough to ban a whole group for a few.”

Hannam stood at the door to City Hall before the meeting started, handing out one-page flyers recommending the city enforce “reasonable laws” and educate the public.

Suggestions include: banning dangerous behavior, including excessive speed and jumping driveways; requiring ATVs and snowmachines driving within city limits to be registered; using fuel tax payments to maintain four-wheeler and snowmachine trails, adding gravel or spraying down trails where dust is a problem; and “steep fines” for nuisance behavior, and fines plus confiscation for dangerous behavior.

“A lot of this problem is we do have some bad seeds out there,” Hannam told the Council.

Contact Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com.