FAIRFIELD — During the past 15 years, the culture of all-terrain vehicle riders has changed, leading to a more positive relationship with the broader community.
One example of this growing trend can be seen in Fairfield, where many of the people who ultimately will decide whether ATVs should have access to a stretch of public road say clubs have helped their cause by working to minimize the instances of irresponsible riding.
Most people have seen the kind of ATV riding that sets their teeth on edge.
“You don’t want people being clowns on their ATVs, riding too fast or pulling out into traffic,” said Gary Taylor, a 25-year resident of a road where ATV traffic soon may be allowed.
That kind of behavior is becoming less common in the face of organized groups of responsible people who want to make ATV riding more accepted, supporters claim.
“The clubs, they’ve been decent,” Taylor said. “They haven’t raised heck or anything.”
Taylor’s sentiment, that organized ATV clubs are decent, may hold sway in the debate about whether ATV traffic should be allowed on certain roads.
Will Harris, director of the state’s Division of Parks and Public Lands, said organized clubs are a relatively recent feature of the ATV community, a feature that is helping to build positive relations.
In 1995, he said, there were just 12 clubs in the state. Today there are 147.
“That’s why I think you’re seeing this rapid change in how people are viewing them,” he said. “The clubs are kind of self-regulating.”
Harris said the same wave of cultural transformation went through the ranks of snowmobilers in the decades before ATV clubs began to form. That head start is part of the reason why snowmobile trails cover about 14,000 miles in the state, while ATV trails are still at about 6,000 miles.
Harris said ATV clubs can serve as an outlet for municipal officers who are asked to rein in rogue riders.
“In general, what we have seen is that organized clubs make a much better impression on the towns and give the towns a way to be able to address things,” Harris said. “They can talk to the club president if they have a problem and that can get things resolved.”
The efforts seem to be paying off statewide.
“We really do try to get club leaders to be leaders and to help with setting a good example for their clubs,” he said. “There is that peer pressure. I think that has really worked to help these clubs be seen in a good light.”
Organized clubs also are more likely to engage in community charities, or at least they are more visible when they do so, Harris said. One of many examples can be found in Oakland’s Messalonskee Trail Riders, where club president Vicki Eastman said members have organized to help local animal shelters and food banks.
In Fairfield, Eastman’s trail riders and Fairfield’s Central Maine ATV Club have asked the town for permission to use parts of Horn Hill and Martins Stream roads. If the town agrees, groups of ATV riders will be allowed to drive their vehicles from one trailhead to another, dramatically expanding the distance a rider can travel.
Eastman said a currently isolated trail system in Fairfield would be joined with a larger system that extends through parts of Waterville and into Oakland.
The permission won’t be granted unless Fairfield’s town council adopts an ATV-specific speed ordinance of 25 mph along the path.
Town Manager Josh Reny said the Town Council will address the matter in January, when newly elected members take their seats.
“They might want to move on it pretty quickly, or they might say we have other pressing issues,” Reny said.
Incoming councilmen Michael Taylor and John Picchiotti both said they have a good impression of the club and its efforts.
“The clubs have done a wonderful job in policing themselves,” Taylor said. “They’re responsible and considerate.”
Picchiotti said he is still open to both sides of the issue but that his main concern is making sure ATVs can ride on the roads safely.
“I think the ATV people are pretty good with making things safe,” Picchiotti said.
Another potential roadblock to road access could come from residents along the roads of a proposed ATV access route.
Fairfield sent letters to residents along Horn Hill and Martins Stream roads to give them a chance to object to the move. While people have raised specific concerns, Reny said, he hasn’t heard much to indicate that people oppose the concept of sharing their roads with ATVs.
Taylor’s neighbor, Ken Whitten, a 25-year resident of Horn Hill Road, said that he has no problem with the proposal, and that most of his contacts with ATV riders passing through the nearby woods have been positive.
Fairfield police Chief John Emery, too, said he had no particular safety concerns about the proposal.
Left to their own devices, young riders might be more inclined to focus on challenging the limits of their own daring, their machine’s motor and the rules of polite society.
But Eastman said that under the leadership of club officers such as she and Nora Foster, vice president of Central Maine ATV Club, ATV rides are all about enjoying the outdoors and the company of others.
Eastman said that as many as 50 or 60 people from neighboring clubs will pack their lunches, join together, and enjoy the shared experience of a social gathering.
“It’s a good clean ride,” she said. “You get to meet a lot of other people.”
Eastman said that the club has worked actively over the years to be a positive force in the community and to make sure irresponsible riding is confronted or reported to law enforcement agencies.
The club’s message to its members and lone ATV riders is the same: Irksome riding can cause landowners to shut down trails.
“We keep reminding people that if you abuse, then you lose,” she said.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287