Committee leans against ATVs on Vt. state lands

AP News
Posted: Nov 30, 2009 10:55 AM

The hotly-debated question of whether all-terrain vehicles should be allowed on Vermont state lands appears to be headed to the full Legislature, with a special rules committee poised to reject an ATV plan proposed by the state Agency of Natural Resources.

Five of eight members of the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules _ which resumes deliberation Tuesday on the ATV question _ said Friday they believe the question should go first to legislative committees that study environmental issues and then to the full House and Senate.

The committee could vote formally to object to the rule drafted by the state Agency of Natural Resources as early as Tuesday, some members said.

But its chairman, Democratic Sen. Mark MacDonald, of Orange County, said he expected the panel would draft findings and try to give people time to respond to them before taking a formal vote.

The panel's decisions aren't binding, but under Vermont law, if it objects to an executive branch agency's rules, that makes it easier for those rules to be challenged in court.

The Agency of Natural Resources made its proposed ATV rule public shortly after lawmakers ended their session last spring. Backers of allowing the machines on state land say ATV users can contribute to Vermont's tourism economy. Critics say the machines are noisy, dirty and damage wetlands.

The agency received about 2,000 public comments on its proposed rule, which ran about four-to-one against allowing the machines on state lands.

Members of the rules committee have largely reserved comment on the underlying question of ATVs on state land. Instead, they've questioned the process by which the rule has been brought about.

Officials with the Natural Resources Agency say the rule they proposed _ allowing ATV connector trails across state land to connect private trail networks _ was in keeping with already passed legislation.

Committee members said Friday the agency was trying to use a tiny provision in a transportation bill passed last year, allowing ATVs to use one small strip of state land in Brighton in northeastern Vermont, as an opening to try to implement a statewide policy.

Most state offices were closed Friday, and agency officials involved in the ATV rules could not be reached.

"If they came and said they were just going to run the 20 feet they need to connect the two trails in Brighton, that would be one thing," said Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington. "But to just open it up and say, without any standards or criteria, the commissioner can decide to open it up any place and any time, I think that's a little broader than people are going."

The committee reflects the strong Democratic majorities in a Legislature that frequently clashes with the administration of Republican Gov. Jim Douglas.

One of the two Republicans on the committee was among those criticizing the rules.

State Rep. Linda Myers, R-Essex, said she did not object in principle to ATVs on state land, "if it is done in a correct and considered manner." But, "I'm a little concerned about how the rule came about. I feel that maybe another look has to be taken on how this would go."

The committee's limited authority does not allow it to vote to ask the full Legislature to consider the ATV question, but members said that likely will end up happening after lawmakers return in January anyway. The committee only can approve the rules, or object on the ground that they are arbitrary or do not reflect legislative intent.