Police Chief Peter Morency outlined the proposal in work session and the council spent about half an hour discussing it. With other items on the agenda, Mayor Paul Grenier was forced to end the discussion. He promised to schedule an entire work session on the topic next month. He said the issue needs a thorough review by the council before any decision is made.
"This needs to be kicked around," he said.
Morency is proposing the city set up a permit system that would allow residents and property owners to drive their ATVs to and from their property on city streets to access the nearest established trail. Property owners and residents could also submit a permit request for guests.
As it currently stands, ATV riders can operate only on the established trail corridor through the city that connects trail systems between Jericho Mountain State Park and Success. ATVs are not permitted on other city streets. Many local riders would like to be able to access the trails directly from their properties and not have to trailer their ATVs to the trailhead.
Morency said there would be no charge for the permit, which he compared to a bicycle registration. He said the permit would be issued by the police department and would include a decal that would be displayed on the ATV. When the permit is issued, the department would provide information on proper use of ATVs on city streets and a review of safety measures. To obtain and use a permit, an individual would have to be a licensed driver or accompanied by an adult if between the ages of 12 and 16.
Morency said his concern is that some ATV riders will abuse the privilege of being able to travel on city streets to access trails. He said he fears some will ride up and down streets, drawing opposition from residents.
The chief said he believes the permit would discourage improper use of an ATV and allow violators to be identified. The first violation would earn a warning but Morency said he believes repeated violators should have their permit revoked. He said the permit would also allow police to track ATV usage in the city.
Councilor Mike Rozek said he did not support a permit system. He said he believes the city would end up charging for the permit.
"It's just a matter of time before dollar signs are attached," he said, noting the city has pushed the fire department to generate revenues from permits it issues.
Rozek said he favors opening up most of the urban compact area to ATV use. He said Gorham is allowing ATVs on some of its streets and said he does not want Berlin to lose out on potential business.
But Councilor Roland Theberge said he is concerned that would lead to students traveling back and forth to school by ATV. Theberge said he wants ATVs to be able to access trails and come into the downtown to patronize local businesses but does not want them running around city streets.
Councilor Denise Morgan Allain asked about a situation where an ATV rider wants to meet at a friend's house to go out riding. She asked if that would be allowed under the permit proposal.
Morency said he is trying to make the permit system as simple as possible. Rozek said ATV owners are already required to register the vehicles with the state.
Councilor Lucie Remillard said the permit system would allow police to educate riders. She said she is not sure all city streets should be open to ATVs.
Councilor Diana Nelson said she wants to make sure safety issues are addressed and control is maintained. She said she believes after a certain number of violations, the permit should be revoked.
"I don't want it to be a free-for-all," she said.
Grenier asked Morency if he could provide the council with data on the number of hours the police and fire departments have spent on ATV issues and rescues over the last three years, broken down by resident and nonresident.