The Chase Road in Jackson is seen in this BDN file photo from Sept. 2021. Residents of the quiet dirt road are concerned that opening it up to ATVs will affect their quality of life. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

Jackson selectmen earlier this month rejected a citizens’ petition to vote on an ATV ordinance, instead unanimously voting to designate all town roads as ATV access roads.

It was the latest move in a months-long dispute  over ATV usage in Jackson, a rural Waldo County town of just over 600 people. The decision by the three-person select board at the March 8 regular meeting hasn’t sat well with some in the community who strongly disagree with how elected officials have addressed the issue.

State law calls for municipal officers to hold a vote on an article if the required number of citizens have signed a written petition asking them to do so. But the Jackson Select Board decided against doing so after a legal opinion indicated that the town meeting does not have the authority to adopt an ordinance governing ATV access routes.

“I was shocked,” said Louise Shorette, a longtime resident of Chase Road, who helped draft the ordinance. “I’m very frustrated with how our selectmen handled the issue. They disregarded the process. Not only am I angry, I feel they’ve disrespected the citizens of the town. I understand that there are pros and cons of any side of any issue, not just ATVs. We were looking for public comment, and transparency, and a public process to decide it.”

JACKSON, Maine — 9/10/21 — Louise Shorette, a longtime Jackson resident, was surprised and confused when she first saw that the Chase Road had been posted for ATV use. The rough dirt road is seldom traveled, and that’s how residents like Shorette would like to stay. “It’s so quiet, it’s idyllic,” she said, adding she was very happy selectmen ultimately compromised and will ask residents to vote on ATV use during the annual town meeting in 2022. Abigail Curtis | BDN staff

Messages left Tuesday for the three Jackson selectmen, John Work, Bryan Menard and Don Nickerson, were not immediately returned.

Maine law allows municipal governments to designate public roads as ATV access routes, but it is the way that the Jackson select board has gone about making that decision that has rubbed residents like Shorette the wrong way.

The dispute over ATVs in Jackson dates back to a decision made in August 2020. That night, without posting it to a public agenda and without public input, a meeting attended by only one town selectman resulted in a permit to allow all terrain vehicles to be operated on five municipal roads. The permit was granted to the Jackson Wheel & Ski Club, the local ATV club.

But it wasn’t until August 2021, when the town posted Chase Road, Long Swamp Road, Hadley Mill Road, Hatch Road and Littlefield Road for ATV use, that residents learned about the change.

The signs motivated residents of Chase Road to push back against the town’s decision and the decision making process. Last summer, the selectmen shifted course. They said that while they wouldn’t rescind the permit, they would take the signs down, effectively closing the roads to ATVs, and let residents vote on the question at the next annual town meeting — something that did not ultimately happen.

Earlier this year, the selectmen said they would hold a non-binding straw poll at town meeting to ask if residents want to reopen ATV access on Hatch, Chase, Hadley Mill and Long Swamp roads.

But when the selectmen received the petition and ordinance, they asked the Maine Municipal Association’s legal services department to cast an eye over it. Garrett Corbin, a staff attorney for the association, said in a series of emails sent to the board in February that he thought the ordinance wouldn’t be lawful because it would override the select board’s authority.

“In my view, the bottom line is that the town meeting does not have authority to adopt an ordinance governing ATV travel or ATV access routes, so the more recent petition should just be refused on those grounds,” Corbin wrote the selectmen on Feb. 25.

After getting that guidance, the selectboard voted to reject the petition entirely — something that disappointed David McDaniel, a Chase Road resident who has spearheaded the fight to have more local control around ATVs.  

“The question is, was the ordinance valid?” he said, adding that he disagrees with Corbin’s assessment that it is not.

The ordinance is “firmly grounded in the authority of the Select Board to make the exclusive and final determinations of ATV access routes,” he and others from the Chase Road wrote in a letter sent to town residents on March 15. “Our ordinance … does not allow voters to do something that is beyond their power to do. The MMA does not address any of the details or merits of the ordinance itself, things voters are allowed to do under Home Rule, that should be debated and voted on at a town meeting.”

At the same March 8 meeting, Selectman Don Nickerson then moved to allow that all town roads be used as ATV access routes. Then the board voted to rescind the permit that was granted to the Jackson Wheel & Ski Club in August 2020, on grounds that it was now irrelevant, and decided not to hold the straw poll after all, according to the Republican Journal.

According to McDaniel, the board also decided to let the Wheel N Ski Club decide which town roads would be opened to ATV use and how the roads would be managed, a decision that puzzled him. Under the Maine ATV law, only municipal officers can designate ATV access routes on public roads or set laws regarding them, such as speed limits and seasonal closing dates, he said.

“That authority rests with our selectmen,” he said. “They now need to own the decision. If they don’t want to open up the roads, then they need to get town input on what roads to open up or not. But delegating that to the club, and somehow thinking that is an acceptable way to govern the town, is not acceptable.”