Some Berne residents question ATV bill, public hearing set for February

— Photo by Joshua Hanson

BERNE — Several residents raised concerns on Jan. 10 as the Berne Town Board proposed its first big law of the year.

Local Law #1, on which a public hearing will be held on Feb. 8 at 6:00 p.m., essentially allows the use of all-terrain and similar vehicles on town roads, and subjects this use to various regulations and penalties for noncompliance. 

The bill has been gestating for several months now, through an effort led by Berne Planning Board Chairman Joe Martin, who said this week that he began working on the law after he was approached by town residents interested in making Berne more motorsport-friendly. 

In broad strokes, the law would allow riders to use most town roads, at speeds no greater than 20 miles per hour, with groups of riders expected to ride in a single-file line as close to the shoulder as possible, in addition to following standard state traffic laws. A 200-foot distance from residences would have to be maintained from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. on weekdays, and until 11 p.m. on weekends.  

The bill also has a general provision about riders not interfering with the lives of residents through excessive noise. 

Only riders who have a state driver’s license (unless they’re under 16 and accompanied by an adult), insurance, and whose vehicles meet certain hardware and registration requirements would be allowed to use the roads.

Riders would also have to be enrolled with the Hilltown Riders organization, or any other “partner organization” with which the town gets involved to help manage local registration, and would have to follow any additional rules made by that organization. 

Not all town roads in Berne would be open to riders, the bill suggests, but no list of approved or restricted roads is included with the draft, with the decision to add or remove roads from use up to the town’s highway superintendent, Randy Bashwinger, subject to approval from the town board. The bill says that signs may be posted to help guide riders. 

Violation of the law would open up a rider to a fine of no more than $200 and/or imprisonment of no more than 15 days. Further violations within 18 months would result in a fine of up to $750 and/or the same window of imprisonment. Fines are doubled in the event that a person or any agricultural asset is damaged. Violations could also be settled through civil compromise.

Three violations within five years would allow the town to revoke a rider’s privileges. 

Also, police are authorized to impound vehicles if riders cannot prove their identity or cannot prove authorization to ride in whatever area; if the rider goes more than 35 miles per hour (15 miles per hour over the allowed speed); or if the rider is unregistered or is too great a nuisance. 

Commander Tom Praisner of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office told the board in November that he approves of the law in the interest of increasing safety and organization among riders, and that the sheriff’s office could increase patrols in the area to account for the new traffic. He also said that he would likely ride his own ATV in the area during his personal time and keep an eye on things that way. 

However, Praisner said he was “not going to give anybody a hard time” if residents call the sheriff’s office with complaints about riders if the laws are being followed. 

“Neighbors are going to call and they’re going to complain,” Praisner said in November. “If we just ignore that, that’s a whole other separate issue in itself, and that’s another complaint, so we can’t ignore it. We’ll come out and we’ll address it, but I’m not going to give anybody a hard time … but if you’re ripping up the street at 60 miles an hour, well, that’s an issue.”

If rules are followed, he said, “and no one gets hurt, you’ll never even hear from me.”

 

Early reactions

The prospect of allowing ATVs and other recreational vehicles on town roads has been met with unease from some residents, a handful of whom appeared at the town’s Jan. 1o meeting, before the bill was published, to voice their concerns and ask questions. 

Two residents of Irish Hill Road, which leads into Cole Hill State Forest, said they didn’t feel that road was safe for riders, but that it nevertheless has become a popular throughway, resulting in groups going at high speeds down the middle of the road while occasionally popping their front wheels off the pavement. 

“We bought our property for peace and quiet … and we really don’t want to have that activity on our roads,” one said, adding that she spoke to residents of Willsie Road, which is on the other side of the Cole Hill, who reportedly “are not eager” about the impacts of this law. 

The other Irish Hill resident noted that regular drivers often get into accidents on that road, which has a 55-mile-per-hour speed limit and two severe turns, and worried about how the law might affect the safety of children who live there. 

After answering some basic questions and clearing up misconceptions, town officials deferred further conversation until the public hearing. 

Supervisor Dennis Palow chided those who showed up for not attending meetings earlier, when the topic was also discussed, saying, “We’ve been having meetings about ATVs for several months, and I haven’t seen any of you all here before, but it’s been on the agenda.”

And, in explaining how the law might benefit the town, Martin erroneously said that increased tourism would enhance the town’s small sales-tax base. Sales tax in the town is not earned through local sales but is distributed by Albany County — the biggest generator is Crossgates Mall in Guilderland — to municipalities across the county based on population, and funds about half of Berne’s budget each year, which is typical for the Hilltowns. 

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