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Lee County Could Legalize ATVs and UTVs on Gravel Roads

Feb 28, 2019

It might soon be legal to drive an ATV or a UTV on a gravel road in Lee County. Supporters of the proposed ordinance say it's a long time coming.

Jason Smith sat in the back row of this week’s county board meeting. He’s the owner of Midwest Performance & Power in Keokuk, a store that sells ATVs, UTVs, scooters, watercraft, and motorcycles.

Smith told the board he was worried when Van Buren County voted a few years ago to allow ATVs and UTVs to be driven on gravel roads -- worried that a few riders might do something “stupid,” like drinking and driving or speeding, and ruin the opportunity for everyone. But he said that’s not happening.

“People wanting this have something to lose,” said Smith. “They are not going to be stupid.”

Jason Smith (standing) talking to the Lee County Board.
Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR

Smith said his customers have complained for years about not being able to use their ATVs/UTVs for recreational purposes in Lee County. Since the county did not have a specific code for ATVs/UTVs, the default is the state rules, which allow them to be used for certain agricultural activities or on private land.

“It’s really just allowing our citizens to use these machines, not just for playing but for work,” said Smith. “Not having to load them and haul them, but to actually use them to go farm-to-farm or to the deer stand or to just take the wife on a cruise for the night.”

The proposed ordinance must still be approved twice more before people would be able to legally drive on a gravel road in Lee County. The final two votes are tentatively scheduled for March 5 & 12.

ATVs/UTVs

  • Are limited to gravel roads unless a paved road must be used to access the next gravel road
  • Can only be driven by someone who is at least 18 years old with a valid driver’s license
  • Must have headlights and tail lights as well as a bright orange “slow moving vehicle” sign
  • Must be driven single-file if multiple vehicles are together
  • Must be registered with the state of Iowa as well as Lee County
  • Are not allowed to exceed 35 miles per hour
  • Can only be driven from 4:00 a.m. – 10:00 pm.

It was that last point that caused the most discussion during the meeting.

Hours of Operation

Supervisor Rich Harlow said his preference would be no time limit. He did not see the need for adults to have to race home to meet a curfew.

County Board Chairman Gary Folluo preferred sunrise to sunset, citing concerns about driving the vehicles at night with larger cars and trucks on the road. But his proposal was not popular with the audience.

UTV (also known as side-by-sides) have a cab, seat-belts, and storage in the back. They can also have windows and air conditioning.
Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR

Pat Werhle of Fort Madison is a UTV owner who looks forward to being able to use his vehicle for recreational purposes. He said he attended the meeting to show the county board there is support for the change.

Werhle said it would be much easier for law enforcement and riders to establish a set time frame for usage, compared to looking up when sunrise and sunset was each day. He said while he would prefer unlimited hours, he understands the 4:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. limit.

“At this point, you know you have to walk before you can run,” said Wehrle. “So if it’s 4:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. to start and then in a year, it goes to unlimited hours if there are no problems, then I think it would be good for everybody.”

The board ended up voting 4-1 on the ordinance, with the 4:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m. time frame and a one-year review. The lone no vote came from Rich Harlow, who said he supports the proposal but not the limit on the hours of operation.

Opposition

This is not the first time the Lee County Board has been asked to allow ATVs/UTVs on gravel roads for recreational purposes. In mid-2016, the proposal was voted down 3-2.

ATVs (4-wheelers) tend to be smaller and require a user to straddle the seat, compared to a UTV (side-by-side).
Credit Jason Parrott / TSPR

The two main areas of concern for the board at that time were safety and liability.

But no one raised the issue of safety this week. And County Attorney Ross Braden said a new state law limits the county’s potential liability if someone had an accident on a county road.

The only opposition this week came from a landowner who said he opposed the ordinance because he has had to deal with four-wheelers tearing up his private property for years.

Supervisor Ron Fedler said he understands that concern, but he said the county should not infringe on the rights of the majority of riders just because a few trespass on private property.

“Hopefully, the ones who do do it safely, if they see someone doing something they shouldn’t do, they are going to tell them to knock it off,” said Fedler. “Because you could lose this. We are not guaranteeing this will stay forever. If you abuse it, you could lose it.”