A large crowd filled the AYR Motors Centre's Gallery Room to a near-maximum level under COVID-19 restrictions Thursday evening to exchange passionate but respectful views on the use of off-road vehicles within Woodstock town limits.
At the heart of the debate was the current illegal use of ATVs, side-by-sides and dirt bikes on the Trans Canada Trail running parallel to the St. John River between Woodstock's southern and northern boundaries. The trail runs through downtown Woodstock, across the Meduxnekeag Walking Bridge.
The corresponding debate surrounded the wisdom of providing off-road enthusiasts legal access to town streets to connect to restaurants, gas stations and other venues within Woodstock.
Woodstock Police Chief Gary Forward, Town Development Officer Andrew Garnett and Tourism and Community Events Director Tobi Pirie, who formed the Off-Road Vehicle Strategic Review Committee in July 2020, hosted the meeting.
After a year of research, the committee released a draft review, which provided the primary talking points for Thursday's public meeting. Chief Forward explained the committee's mandate is to deliver a report to the CAO, Ken Anthony, who, in turn, will share it, with recommendations, to the mayor and council, who will make the final decisions of bylaws covering off-road vehicles use within the town.
Both Pirie and Chief Forward described their participation on the ad hoc committee as "a learning experience."
Forward reiterated a point included in the draft introduction that "enforcement challenges" are central to any rules and regulations surrounding off-road-vehicle usage.
He explained police fielded numerous complaints about ATVs and dirt bikes speeding along town streets and trails were, in many cases, a result of drivers racing to avoid or get away from police enforcement.
"If not worried about fines, would they be more respectful," Forward asked rhetorically.
On the other hand, the chief said that police must consider the increasing number of residents' complaints about the noise and danger presented by the wheelers and illegal bikes on streets and the trail.
Several speakers took the podium during the event offering viewpoints spanning several options. Many, especially a significant number of residents living near the river and Trans Canada Trail, strongly expressed the need to ensure the trail remains for the use of walkers and bikers only.
Off-road vehicle owners and operators argued multi-use trails work, pointing out that most drivers respect other trail users by slowing or even stopping for pedestrians.
While most speakers seemed to support at least limited use of town streets, a few suggested the mingling of regular vehicle traffic with ATVs, side-by-sides and dirt bikes could create danger and liability issues.
Dwayne Atherton, who made multiple trips to the podium, pushed the idea of a compromise to satisfy everyone. He narrowed his point to a single statement he repeated several times.
"If you open up Main Street, there'd be no need to use the trail," he said.
While many New Brunswick towns and villages provide access to streets for off-road vehicle operators to reach businesses, Forward explained, it depends on riders adhering to the rules and safety requirements.
He explained the committee offered such an option in its draft report. Forward also expressed his view that police reaction to any implemented changes requires an education period.
For example, the chief said that officers' initial response to potential rule-breaking riders would be to educate them about the rules.
In the meantime, as the committee, the CAO and town council seek answers, many residents said legal trail users and area residents grow frustrated with the illegal activities of ATVers and bikers.
Sue Dymond, who lives right next to the trail on the southside of town, said it's a daily frustration from early spring to late fall.
"Every night at 10 o'clock, that's when it starts," she said. "And it goes all night. The people that really get to know the problem are the people that live along the trail."
Janice King, who also lives along the trail and uses it for walking, also pointed out the constant motorized traffic.
"It's my understanding the Trans Canada Trail is for walkers," she said.
King also noted the significant increase in traffic since the town removed the barriers limiting motorized access.
Quad and ATV Club members and avid off-road enthusiasts emphasized the sport's significant recreation and economic benefits, adding most club members recognize the importance of being respectful to others.
Some stressed the tourist benefits for communities welcoming off-road groups or hosting rallies. They explained providing access to restaurants, hotels, gas stations, and other retailers brings thousands of dollars into local business coffers.
Lower Woodstock resident Don Calhoun, who said he's been wheeling since the mid-'90s, stressed almost all enthusiasts he's met over the years share a great respect for each other, landowners and other trail users.
Unfortunately, he said, the focus always goes to the few rule-breakers
"We don't report the good news," Calhoun said.
He suggested the most significant issues in the ongoing debate should be "education" and "respect."
Later in the meeting, Forward addressed those issues, noting he was "very much in favour of education."
"But we're always going to have a segment of society that won't follow the rules," Forward said.
The chief said regardless of what bylaws the council adopts, the off-road community must, in many ways, "police itself."
Forward said police would work with the off-road enthusiasts, but it can't be chasing down fleeing machines.
"We just want to drive up to a person or an ATV or side-by-side to have a conversation," he said.
Joining Forward, Pirie and Garnett at the head table were Dean Murdock and Jason Henderson of the off-road enforcement. They explained their role focuses on the trails, but they work in partnership with other police forces, including the Woodstock Police Force.
Following the more than a dozen presentations and a series of viewpoints, Ken Kinney, the New Brunswick manager of Crown Land Planning, emerged from the audience to take the podium. He said his department oversees all Crown land, including the old rail beds, which serve as the approximately 1,100 kilometres of trails throughout the province.
Kinney said the Trans Canada Trail through Woodstock is part of that network of trails.
He said his department has a maintenance budget, a capital budget and oversight of applications for recreational trail use.
He said a majority of the trails in question fall under the Parks Act.
Kinney clarified the Trans Canada Trail through Woodstock is not authorized for motorized use. He said the department has a process to hear any applications to change the use of trails.
Kinney said the department would not authorize motorized traffic on a trail such as Woodstock's "without solid discussion and council ratification."
"If council wants motorized vehicles on the trail," he said, "they have to bring it to us."
As for street use of off-road vehicles, Kinney said, such plans require approval from the Department of Public Safety and accepted safety rules put in place through a partnership with the Department of Transportation and Infrastructure.
Kinney took a moment to address the recent removal of barriers from the Woodstock walking trail, agreeing a question of liability exists surrounding the potential of injury.
He added such barriers offer only limited effectiveness. Providing space for bikes and strollers, he said, provides a path for bikes and strollers. Other off-road vehicle operators often find a way around the barriers.
Garnett thanked everyone for attending the open house, saying the committee heard many "pros and cons."
He said the committee would use input from Thursday's meeting to tweak their draft report before presenting it to the mayor and council.
Link to the Town of Woodstock Off-Road Vehicle Strategic Review Draft Report.
Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun