In my last letter, I said that I would write to my constituents with a focus on the important issues facing our district. In Concord last week, there were a slew of public hearings in the House on five bills that would restrict and curtail off-highway recreational vehicles.
OHRVs are a critical part of the North Country economy and tourism industry. Each year, the OHRV industry brings millions of dollars into our municipalities. During my brief time in the Senate, I have received more mail, phone calls and emails on these bills than on any other matter. People from across the country are flocking to Coos and Grafton Counties for the best OHRV trails. Very few people, if any, are going off-roading in Dover, Nashua or Portsmouth.
One of the bills that I testified against was HB 498-FN. If passed, this bill would prohibit the ability of local governments to determine if OHRVs could travel on town roads. The towns of Stewartstown, Colebrook and Gorham, and the city of Berlin have all reached out to me to express their formal opposition to this bill.
HB 498-FN takes away local control from town boards of selectmen. These kinds of issues should be decided in the communities that are actually affected by the decision, not in Concord. Local government is more responsive and more reactive to the real needs of citizens than the bureaucracy of Concord.
Simply put, the bill is impractical. Local municipalities are responsible for maintaining the roads this legislation would affect. It makes little sense to say you cannot cross one of these minor town roads on your OHRV to get from one trailhead to another. If this legislation goes into effect, OHRV users would be trapped in pockets of woodlands surrounded by these small roads that they legally cannot cross. Many tourists travel to the North Country to use the vast, interconnected trail systems offered in the region. It would be a detriment to the local economy if we made it more difficult to navigate the trails.
Another bill I testified in opposition to was HB 683-FN, which would create additional notice and procedural requirements prior to authorizing certain roads for OHRV use. Before a municipality could open a road to OHRV use, the bill would require approval from the local governing body and two-thirds of abutting landowners. Towns are already methodical and deliberative in their decisions to open up roads to OHRVs. Adding a requirement to get permission from abutting landowners not only usurps a local governing body’s decision, but can impede the ability of OHRV riders to use roads to connect with other trails. This bill was also opposed by the New Hampshire Municipal Association, which objected to the way the bill injects the state into local planning and zoning, takes away local control and threatens certain municipal liability protections.
These bills place extensive red tape on our OHRV community, making it more difficult for them to operate in the North Country. Passing these bills would cost our communities an immeasurable amount of income — from rentals and lodging to rooms and meals tax revenue. I am sure convenience stores, gas stations, hotels and restaurants would greatly miss the OHRV community during the winter when they are probably the only business these locations see for several months at a time. Not too many leaf-peepers head north of the Notch after the middle of October.
The OHRV community has filled a void left by the closure of our paper mills. While their business has not completely replaced the income of the paper mills and other vanished industries, the OHRV community has gone a long way in helping us along. During the bill hearings, I saw two sides are both very passionate and very involved. The rights of property owners should be respected, but not by casting aside the North Country’s OHRV community.
Senator David Starr is a Republican member of the New Hampshire representing District 1.