On April 7, voters in the Town of Dolores will have plenty of decisions to make. In addition to choosing a mayor and three town-board members and deciding whether to allow retail marijuana stores, manufacturing and cultivation facilities, residents will decide whether to allow the operation of Off Highway Vehicles (OHVs) within town limits.
Why Dolores and why now?
The idea of allowing OHVs to operate inside town has been kicking around Dolores for a few years but gained momentum at a town workshop covering economic development in April 2019.
According to an April 10, 2019, article in the Cortez Journal, Cody Folsom, owner of Dolores Outfitters, which rents OHVs, said permitting them in-town would boost the economy.
“Allowing ATV use on certain routes in town benefits local riders and tourists. They could stop in town for supplies,” he is quoted as saying, using Silverton as an example.
Folsom is a town trustee currently up for re-election. Outfitter co-owner Katie Ward, Folsom’s wife, is on the Chamber’s board, and also supports allowing OHVs in town, as does Ginger McClellan-Swope, who owns the Dolores Outpost Motel. “It would be nice to ride (an ATV) up to Boggy from town, rather than having to load it up on a trailer,” says McClellan-Swope in the article.
Susan Lisak, Dolores Chamber of Commerce manager since June 2019, told the Free Press that “business owners have been asking for OHVs” and that “95 percent of the Chamber members would do well with OHVs” according to a survey she conducted.
Linnea Peterson, owner of the Dolores Food Market and member of the Dolores Chamber, said she was not surveyed. “I’m not pleased with the Chamber saying businesses are in support of OHVs. I feel like I’m misrepresented.”
The Dolores Chamber of Commerce currently has 127 members listed on its website. Thirty-three are located within town limits, but the rest are outside of Dolores, mostly in Cortez but also in a number of other municipalities.
At least 19 businesses in Dolores are not Chamber members.
So “95 percent” of Chamber of Commerce members is not representative of all Dolores businesses.
OHV petition and vote
Dolores Town Manager Ken Charles told the Free Press he learned of the push to allow OHVs in town through discussions with Lisak in the fall of 2019. Lisak said that in October 2019 the Chamber Board wanted to move forward with the OHV issue, hoping to get the measure passed in time for the 2020 tourist season. The Chamber circulated a petition, garnering the requisite number of signatures to ask for a special election on the issue.
At the Jan. 13 Dolores town board meeting, Lisak explained the petition, referencing research indicating that Silverton, which allowed OHV use in 2014, has benefited through increased tourism and revenue.
Dolores Mayor Chad Wheelus took issue with the way the Chamber was attempting to get OHVs approved, saying he felt it had “circumnavigated” the Town Board.
However, Trustee James Biard responded that many businesses in town were “fed up” because the board takes too long to make decisions, which was why the Chamber had moved forward with the petition.
Wheelus and Trustee Jen Stark were concerned about the Chamber’s involvement with a political process, since the Chamber, as a non-profit organization, is prohibited to engage in such activities.
Trustees Melissa Watters, Stark, Tracy Murphy and Wheelus all voiced concern about the cost of a special election. The upshot was that the Chamber’s petition was withdrawn and the board approved a resolution calling for the question to be part of the regular election in April.
OHVs definitely have both proponents and critics. At the April 8, 2019, town board meeting, the first opportunity for public commentary after the workshop promoting OHVs was held, Chamber member and Dolores River Campground owner Laney Beyhan voiced concerns about allowing OHVs. Two other town residents also raised concerns.
But Kirk Swope, currently running for a seat on the Dolores Town Board and married to Ginger McClellan-Swope, is quoted in the minutes as saying “it would help promote.”
The primary argument expressed by the OHV enthusiasts is that OHVs will boost town revenue. The idea is that people will come to Dolores specifically because they can ride OHVs in town, stopping to purchase souvenirs, food, and gas, eating at local restaurants and staying in hotels.
“We don’t want this to be drive-through Dolores anymore,” said Lisak. She said demographic analyses of OHV users show they are older individuals with disposable income who buy three times as many souvenirs as other users.
Data is hard to come by. Silverton, population 650 (2010 census) is similar to Dolores and approved OHV use in 2014. According to the town’s website, the general sales tax revenue for all businesses in 2015 was $828,048, rising to $960,000 for the 2019 budget year. This is an increase of $131,952 during the four years that both OHVs and marijuana sales were permitted in town. It is a significant increase, but cannot be attributed solely to OHVs.
In comparison, Dolores, population 926, had a general sales tax revenue for all businesses in 2015 of $311,065, rising to $458,144 in 2019, an increase of $147,079 for the four-year period. During the same time period (2015-2019) the increase in revenue for Dolores – without OHVs– was just over $15,000 greater than that of Silverton, where both OHVs and marijuana sales were permitted in town.
The overall revenue for Silverton is much higher than Dolores, most likely because Silverton has more businesses. Yet Dolores had a better rate of revenue growth, without OHVs.
Arlene Simon, Silverton resident for 45 years, has operated the Hummingbird Shop on Blair Street for 30 years, selling Western art and souvenirs. She said that instead of buying supplies in Silverton, OHV riders “bring most of what they use with them.”
Simon told the Free Press that the presence of OHVs in town hasn’t increased her business.
“I think primarily it’s beneficial to some of the restaurants, and that’s about it,” she said.“However, in our community a great many of those restaurants are gone during the rest of the year.”
Simon added that her sales are actually down. “My observation is that they’re also impacting other motorized users. The ‘Jeepers’ complain about having to share the road with OHVs, so we’re losing those customers, who were very good customers. They came in to town, had lunch and shopped, while now they just stay on the highway.”
Two other communities in Southwest Colorado also recently approved in-town use of OHVs. Dove Creek, population 750, did so in August 2019. Town manager Irvin Frazier told the Free Press, “At this point in time we haven’t noticed any difference in sales tax. That’s not to say that when the weather improves things won’t change, but so far there is no difference.”
Hinsdale County seat Lake City, population 379, approved OHVs in town in 2016. Hinsdale County Sheriff Chris Kamdish told the Free Press, “Most of our OHV traffic is out of town – occasionally they come off the Alpine Loop and come into town.” He said OHVs have attracted more people to town, but doesn’t know the specific economic impact they have had.
In-town OHV use also has economic costs. Lisak said Dolores would have to consider start-up costs like signage, maps and informational brochures.
When asked about increased costs related to law enforcement or road repair, Charles said, “Nobody knows.”
Quality of life
Dolores is the largest municipality in Southwest Colorado to consider allowing OHVs. Residents and business owners are polarized over potential repercussions to quality of life.
“My biggest issue is that citizens are not being properly informed,” said Sheila Wheeler, who is running for a seat on the town board. “If it goes through it will affect everyone. It will change the quality of life in town.”
Jeff Pope, Dolores resident and father of three children, said it would be beneficial to focus on broader economic-development ideas. “What is it that we DO want for our town? What is it that draws people here, that makes them want to live here?” he asked.
Ensuing discussion centered on the quiet, safe and quaint nature of Dolores: a town where children play in the streets, people walk dogs in the middle of the road and stop to chat on the river trail. It is a place where residents hear geese, ravens and kingfishers (and barking dogs!) instead of sirens, gunshots or engines.
“It’s a pedestrian town,” said Pope, who doesn’t worry about his children riding their bikes on roads near his home.
Linnea Peterson, who raised her two daughters in town, values the small-town atmosphere. She recounts the time her young daughter came (safely) face to face with a bear on one of Dolores’ dirt roads. “I’d rather have my daughter encounter a bear than an OHV,” she laughed.
Residents believed that these features are responsible for recent increases in property values and the current low real estate inventory in town.
What about dust? Lisak said that OHVs will only be allowed on paved streets, an assumption shared by Val Truelsen, Ponderosa restaurant owner and town trustee running for re-election. The measure put to voters gives the town board the power to designate “public streets and routes within the town,” but does not specify paved streets only.
How will trustees designate what routes to adopt? Will residents or businesses have any say on whether their road will be open to OHVs? The answers are unknown, especially since three trustee positions on the town board, as well as that of mayor, are up for election on April 7. All decisions regarding OHVs would be decided by the new board.
Lisak seems certain that only paved routes will be approved. “They will go up and down Central, then on 4th Street over the bridge so people can get into town,” she said. “They can visit the pub, the Antique store and pick up things at the grocery store before going back to camp.”
Central is paved from the fire station on the western edge of town to the high school, a distance of 16 blocks or approximately one mile. The only other paved roads in town are three blocks on 4th street, from where it meets County Road 30, crossing the bridge over the Dolores River to Central, and three blocks on 11th from Highway 145 to County Road 31 leading to Boggy Draw. Both 5th and 6thstreets are also paved for one block between Hwy 145 and Central. All other streets in Dolores are unpaved.
But will OHVs stay on paved roads? In Dove Creek, Silverton and Lake City, keeping OHVs on designated routes is an issue. Dove Creek Town Manager Frazier said the trouble they have had is with “a couple of individuals who didn’t understand you couldn’t ride on the highway.”
Similarly, Hinsdale County Sheriff Chris Kamdish told the Free Press, “Most of our stops on OHVs are because they are not following the town or county ordinances. The majority of the calls are complaints about OHVs driving where they’re not supposed to.”
San Juan County Deputy Lowrance also told the Free Press that “there are more calls specifically due to OHVs off the route” in Silverton.
Arlene Simon said in Silverton, “community members are asking the commissioners to set aside a ‘health corridor’ for the community to take their dogs for a walk, where kids can ride their bicycles without fear of being impacted by the OHVs. Because OHVs go everywhere, they have really impeded on the rights of other people,” she said.
Simon’s business is on one of the designated routes in Silverton that is not paved, and she said the town has to pay to water streets to keep dust down.
Lowrance agreed, saying, “There’s definitely an increase in expenditures” since OHVs were allowed, but said it is due to the fact that there is more traffic in general.
“Our county road crews are struggling to keep our roads in shape,” Lowrance said, saying this is especially a problem on back roads. OHVs “have a way of increasing the wear,” he said. “Part of it is their tires, but also it is the riders. You don’t have to have them in 4WD lock all the time, and if you do, when they go around a curve with those aggressive tires it tears up the road.”
Simon agreed. “OHVs kick up a lot of gravel – they are damaging the roads they are using. It’s no secret that the roads are now in very rough condition.” Silverton’s expenditures for gravel used for road repair have dramatically increased since OHVs were permitted. In 2015 the cost was $1832, but in 2019 the town budgeted $9000 for gravel.
Dolores already has road issues. There is no guarantee that only paved routes will be designated by the incoming board or that vehicles will stay on the paved roads once they are in town.
Can Dolores afford to pay more for gravel or road maintenance? Would the town have to water dirt roads because of increased traffic? How much would this cost? These are all questions town residents will have to face if OHVs are approved.
Staging and parking
Other reservations include staging and parking. Where will people bringing their OHVs to town park their trailers to unload the machines?
Lisak said one area being considered for staging was on Central west of town, past the fire station, by the cemetery and Overlook Trailhead (a non-motorized trail actively used by mountain bikers and hikers.) The pavement on Central ends at the fire station – would Dolores pave the road to the suggested staging area? If not, will dust and road wear become problematic? Is there enough parking in town to accommodate increased vehicle traffic because of OHV users? Answers are unknown.
More traffic, more calls
Officials in both Silverton and Lake City said there has been an increase in calls to the sheriff ’s office. In Lake City, Sheriff Kamdish explains this is due to the increase in traffic, not specifically because of OHVs. “It attracts more people to town, therefore we have more people, therefore we have more calls.”
Lowrance said there has been an increase in calls in Silverton, but emphasized the increase in overall traffic. “Any time you have an increase in people and traffic – whether it’s ATV or foot traffic – there’s always an increase in the workload for all emergency services – law enforcement, EMS and fire.”
The number one enforcement problem for all these towns is OHVs going where they are not supposed to go. Other problems include speeding, unsafe driving, illegal equipment, underage drivers, riders not adhering to safety regulations, or driving without licenses.
In San Juan County, there have been fatalities due to OHVs, with the highest number among individuals 11 to 16 years old.
“We’ve have plenty of fatalities on OHVs,” Lowrance said. “There is a concern that a lot of OHV riders don’t have the experience or instruction on how to run these machines.”
The vehicles are not manufactured for use on highways or in towns and do not have safety features required in passenger vehicles, such as turn signals, power steering, or horns.
Dolores Outfitters rents the Polaris RZR 900 four-seater for $350 a day. These machines retail between $14,000 and $16,000, and do not come with windshields or turn signals. ATVs have even fewer safety features.
Lowrance said, “I tend to believe that the way the ATVs are used and advertised causes an increase in the idea that you should drive them fast and have fun. Where the ATVs play a unique role is that there’s inexperience and a lack of instruction. Folks have in their mind that they can do anything on them.”
Which these days, is beginning to include driving them around small towns in Colorado.
Lisak said she doesn’t expect there to be that many OHVs in Dolores.“We would never become a Moab.”
But Silverton’s Simon says it is important to “think about everything on the way in. Anybody going in that direction has got to give some serious consideration to the impact on the community. It’s been a big impact on our community. You’re opening Pandora’s box. Once you go through that door, it’s very hard to go back the other direction.”