A Vermont legislative committee voted unanimously Tuesday to oppose rules drafted by the Douglas administration to allow limited use of all-terrain vehicles on state lands.
The committee vote was nonbinding and the state Agency of Natural Resources is expected to put the rule into effect anyway. But the decision will make it easier for opponents to challenge the rule in court.
Tuesday's action by the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules punctuated months of debate over whether ATVs should be allowed on state land and whether the state agency had the necessary backing, as stipulated by law, to impose the rule. Formal public comments ran 4-1 against the plan.
Committee members said Tuesday they expect the full Legislature to take up the issue when lawmakers return in January.
Natural Resources Secretary Jonathan Wood called the committee action "pretty predictable."
"I continue to disagree that we don't have clear authority" under existing laws to enact the rule, he added.
Supporters say they like the state's plan to start with a pilot project of two or three connector trails that would link existing trail networks on private land. They argue that ATV riders are taxpayers who should have a right to use public land and that having more legal places to ride would discourage illegal use of the machines.
Steve McLeod of the Vermont ATV Sportsman's Association said the initial limit of two to three trails would give the state a chance to shut down access to public lands if riders are abusive and before ATV use on public lands becomes widespread.
Opponents say ATVs are noisy, polluting and frequently damage wetlands, and that illegal use will grow as more land is opened up to the machines.
Wood and Commissioner Jason Gibbs of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation argue also that applying the standard the committee wants to use with ATVs _ that rules must reflect explicit legislative intent _ could upend a host of other executive branch rules.
"If their premise is that the Legislature has to put out an absolutely clear directive about everything that should be in a rule, you're taking away that separation of powers between the Legislature and the executive branch," Wood said.
Gibbs said in a letter to the committee: "If your current thinking is applied to snowmobile rules, they too would be illegitimate. This could expose an important part of our winter tourism and recreation economy to a range of challenges ..."
Sen. Mark MacDonald, D-Orange and chairman of the rules committee, said there was a key distinction between state laws governing snowmobiles versus ATVs.
He said the Legislature gave the agency "blanket authority" to write rules governing snowmobilers' use of state land. But for ATVs, he said, the Legislature required the agency to go through the formal rule-making process and come before the rules committee.