Residents of Nunivak ride on a four-wheeler in 2008. (Creative Commons/Andrea Pokrzywinski)

A measure to prohibit All-Terrain-Vehicle rentals in Sitka failed at the assembly table on Tuesday (4-12-22).  The rental ban couldn’t gain assembly’s full support, in large part because several members wanted the law to distinguish between smaller four-wheelers, and larger utility task vehicles (UTVs), allowing for the latter to be rented for local road use.

ATVs have been legal on Sitka’s streets and roads for almost two months. But some assembly members wanted to tweak the new ATV rules, because they were concerned that it would allow a business to give ATV tours or rent the vehicles to tourists. So in late March, the assembly adopted on first reading an amendment that would prohibit leasing or renting them for use on public roads.  

But when the assembly considered the same amendment on second reading on April 12, a handful of community members continued to voice concerns that it was too restrictive.

“I really think that we need to give people the chance to do this,” said former mayor and assembly member Valorie Nelson. “I’m not seeing hundreds of ATVs on the road that are killing people or accidents, and I haven’t read of any reports in the police blotter. So please, vote no on this ordinance and give people a chance.”

While the new rule would have banned ATVs “for hire”– other commercial activities would remain legal. People could still drive the vehicles to work and businesses could use their own ATVs for things such as hauling loads. 

Several assembly members, including Crystal Duncan, said they had concerns about ATVs and commercial use, but those same concerns didn’t carry over to the larger side-by-side Utility Task Vehicles (UTVs) which the law also applies to. Duncan suggested adjusting the wording to get fellow assembly members on board. 

Utility Task Vehicles or “side-by-sides” differ from their smaller ATV siblings — they’re generally larger with a steering wheel, built more for work than recreation (Creative Commons/Blue Line Industries)

“I think when it comes to safety, my main concerns have to do with the use of ATVs and the inexperience that comes with that. I really think you need to have mileage in order to adequately do that,” Duncan said. “But if you look at UTVs and the way that they were designed, they’re basically cars in how they function.”

“I think what’s unfortunate if this passes tonight is that we’ve tried to get non-local drivers off the road. I think that’s been a huge concern here,” said Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz. “But this ordinance would prevent a local driver from giving what could be highly desirable tours, wildlife tours, on a UTV…I think probably an unforeseen consequence of the ordinance.” 

But assembly member Rebecca Himschoot worried that after seeing what this summer looked like, with a predicted tourist boom and more vehicles on Sitka’s roads, the assembly might change its mind next year.  

“If this doesn’t pass tonight, if somebody makes a huge investment in, you know, having 10 of these that they’re wanting to rent out, and then we turn around and say ‘[It] didn’t work,’ and then ban it next year. That’s a lot of money that person’s out,” Himschoot said.

Sponsor Kevin Knox, recognizing that he didn’t have the votes needed to pass, said he hoped they would consider an ATV ordinance in the future. For him, an ATV rental ban isn’t just about safety. 

“I still am concerned, you know, even just from an aesthetic point of view, of having, you know, large numbers of any kind of vehicle that is really, in the end, designed for off-road use driving around our local streets,” Knox said. “I think aesthetically, it changes the character a bit.”

Ultimately the assembly voted 3-4 against the ban, with assembly members Dave Miller, Thor Christianson, Crystal Duncan and Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz opposed.