Corrected caption: A Sitkan operates an ATV equipped with a plow on Swan Lake. ATVs are often used in Sitka to plow driveways and sidewalks, but they’re not legal on Sitka’s streets, at least for the near future. And even use of ATVs on the lake would require a permit, per city code (KCAW/Rose)

All terrain vehicles will not be street legal in Sitka on January 1st. When the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday (12-29-21), it voted to opt out of a new state law allowing ATVs on some public roads in the new year. But Assembly Members promised to explore options for Sitka in the coming weeks.

(Listen here to the radio version of this story that aired on 12-30-21)

The new state regulations allow ATVs on roads with speed limits of 45 miles per hour or less. ATVs must be registered with license plates to be road legal and meet other safety requirements. But that’s not enough for some state safety organizations, like the Alaska Association of Police Chiefs, who published a letter in opposition to the new ATV law last month. Sitka’s Police and Fire commission unanimously called for the city to opt out, along with the police and fire chiefs, due to safety concerns. That was enough for the Assembly to press the pause button. 

Sitkans who spoke at the meeting were all in favor of ATVs on local roads. Sitka High School junior Logan Kluting said he wanted the Assembly to reconsider opting out, because ATVs are useful for plowing sidewalks and driveways, and even getting to school. 

“Right now I have my driver’s license, but I don’t have a vehicle,” Kluting said. “Being able to ride my ATV on the road will be a lot cheaper, fuel efficiency-wise and overall just for accessibility to the younger generation like me. I’m only going to be here for another couple years before I move on to college, and buying a vehicle right now just seems ridiculous. But since I already own an ATV, being able to ride on the road to be a lot easier.”

And Assembly Member Dave Miller said most of the emails the Assembly received were in favor of ATVs on roads. He said he’d even conducted his own poll while grocery shopping.

“I have probably talked to a lot, I don’t know, 100-150 people,” Miller said. “I can tell you pretty much hands down, they are all for having four wheelers on the road.”

But most Assembly members wanted Sitka to take its time and consider ripple effects the new rule could have for the community. Assembly Member Kevin Knox gave one example–  the new rules would open doors for things like an ATV tourist business operating on local streets.

“The idea of side-by-sides being rented out to visitors, or ATVs being rented out to visitors, because all you would have to have is a driver’s license and be 16 years old and have the appropriate equipment. Fabulous business idea — I’m not sure it’s the thing for us or not,” Knox said.

“I really do feel like there’s a solution here that we should be able to come up with,” Knox continued. “I don’t like trying to put the genie back in the bottle. I would rather for us to opt out right now, stay with the status quo and find that solution.”

And Assembly Member Rebecca Himschoot said she wanted the question of ATV driver’s education to be addressed.

“I know people teach their kids how to use these machines. But there are courses out there you can take, and other places in Alaska offer those courses,” Himschoot said. “Maybe we should be looking at that for our community.”

The group voted 4-2 to opt out of the state’s new ATV rules, with Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz and Assembly Member Dave Miller opposed. That keeps Sitka’s road rules status quo for now. But Assembly Member Thor Christianson agreed to work with the public to draft an ordinance that works for Sitka, with the plan to bring Sitka-specific ATV road rules back to the Assembly for consideration in the coming weeks.

On Thursday, January 6 at 6:00 p.m., citizens are invited to meet with Assembly Members Christianson and Miller in an informal setting at Harrigan Centennial Hall to discuss potential ATV code changes. Those unable to attend may submit written comments to no later than noon on January 6.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the photo caption. The initial caption stated that ATV use on Swan Lake (as pictured) is legal while ATV use on Sitka’s roads is not. According to the city’s legal department, ATV use on Swan Lake would require a permit from the city, which may not be granted due to safety concerns.