After heavy snowfall, many Sitka sidewalks are plowed by ATV users like this one on Lake Street. Even if Sitka opts out of the new state law that allows ATV road use, Police Chief Robert Baty said Sitkans can still use their ATVs to plow a nearby sidewalk or neighbors yard. But some ATV users want more legal road access (KCAW/Rose)

Beginning next month, the state of Alaska will allow all-terrain vehicles on public roadways with speed limits below 45 miles per hour. But that may not be the case in all Alaska communities. When the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday (12-14-21), it approved, on first reading, an ordinance that would have Sitka opt out of the new state law.

ATVs are not currently allowed on roadways in Sitka, and Sitka’s fire and police chiefs want it to stay that way. They’re concerned that opening the roads to off-highway vehicles will increase the risk of fatal accidents. By opting out of the new state code which takes effect on January 1, the city would maintain the ‘status quo.’ 

Several Sitkans spoke out against the ordinance. Most voiced support for using ATVs on local roads.  Brandon Finn said the city should consider a permitting program similar to Hoonah’s, which allows ATV users with drivers licenses to operate them on roads. And he said he believed Sitkans would follow the new state law responsibly if given the chance.  

“Not all of us are high schoolers just ripping around on four wheelers. Some of us are going to be out plowing driveways, going to get groceries, things like that with our four wheelers. And I believe that that would be something that we should give the city of Sitka a chance and maybe evaluate it after a year,” Finn said. “Just give everyone a chance before taking it away.”

Former Assembly member Richard Wein said the city should be creative and find a way to safely allow ATV use, considering how useful they are for plowing sidewalks and driveways after a heavy snow. And if the city decides to opt out of the state’s rule due to safety, he argued that the city should focus more heavily on clearing roadways in the icy season. (6:46)

“Bottom line is, is that this now puts the ball in your court– since safety is so important–that you need to clean the streets, you need to salt them and you need to sand them. Because there are plenty of accidents that occur when the streets are neglected and not prepped,” he said.

Assembly member Crystal Duncan said the concerns about safety were at the forefront in her mind, and she would back the Police and Fire Commission’s unanimous recommendation to opt out of the state law.

“The conversations that were had address safety, which I think is the number one concern,” Duncan said. “And so I do hear the chatter about, ‘Well, let’s see if this results in unsafe practices, accidents, things like that.’ I tend to be a little bit on the other side of ‘Can we prevent that before it occurs?’ 

The timeline to make a decision on whether to opt out of the new law is short. But several assembly members signaled they would support local ATV use on roads with more regulation, including Rebecca Himschoot.

“The data and information I have coming in from sources I trust–the fire department, police department — are saying this is not a good idea for Sitka. So I’m going to go with that expertise right now on first reading,” Himschoot said. “But that does not mean I’m not open to looking down the road at ways that we could make life easier for ATV operators in Sitka.”

Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz said ATVs should be allowed on Sitka’s roads, and said the safety concerns about ATVs could be easily applied to motorized scooters and other smaller vehicles that are currently street legal. And he suggested the assembly establish a working group to figure out what rules are needed to open local roads to ATV use.

“I want to give our citizens a chance to prove themselves,” Eisenbeisz said. “I believe that our citizens are reasonable people. And I believe that we should give them the opportunity to to try this new mechanism out before we instantly assume that everyone will be on the worst side. If something like this passes, though, and we do see ill effects from it, I will also be the first cosponsor of an ordinance to get rid of it.” 

The ordinance to opt out passed on a 4-1 vote with assembly members Rebecca Himschoot, Crystal Duncan, Dave Miller, and Thor Christianson in favor, and Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz opposed. The ordinance will come before the assembly for a second reading at its December 28 meeting.