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Claremont Battles Feds On Trail Use

City Questions Ban of ATVs, Has Asked for More Proof

Claremont — City Manager Guy Santagate said the city is in a “quandary” over a disagreement with federal officials regarding use of motorized vehicles on nearly three miles of the city-owned recreational trail.

Last week, the city received a copy of a letter sent to the state Department of Transportation from the New Hampshire Division of the Federal Highway Administration stating that motorized vehicles are not permitted on the city’s portion of the trail because federal money was used to build the trail on the former railroad bed in the 1990s. The letter cites Title 23 217(h) of the U.S. code, which addresses bicycle and pedestrian legislation. Section 217(h) prohibits motorized vehicles with a few exceptions, including motorized wheelchairs and for maintenance.

“As you know, Title 23 does not permit the use of motorized vehicles on existing and proposed nonmotorized trails and/or pedestrian walkways using Federal transportation funds, except in exceptional cases,” wrote Patrick Bauer, division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration in his letter to the state DOT on April 7.

Santagate said Friday city officials would like to have further evidence that federal money received by the city is subject to Title 23.

“We have asked them and they said, ‘We don’t have proof,’ ” Santagate said.

The city received $258,000 in federal funds and $64,503 in state funds to buy the property and construct the trail, according to the project record.

William Watson with the state Department of Transportation, who he has been working with the city the last several months on the issue, said in an email Friday that the letter from Bauer is “quite clear and concise” with respect to the banning of motorized vehicles.

The trail project document lists a program code of 33BO. According to the “Guide to Federal Aid Programs and Projects,” 33BO is under transportation enhancement activities which include provision of facilities for pedestrians and bicycles; provision of safety and educational activities for pedestrians and bicyclists; and preservation of abandoned railway corridors (including the conversion and use of the corridors for pedestrian or bicycle trails).” There is no mention of motorized vehicles.

Resident Jim Feleen brought the problem of motorized vehicles on the trail to the attention of the Conservation Commission about two years ago. He said Friday said it is his understanding there are several different “buckets” that federal money for trails can come from.

“The U.S. Department of Transportation said the money came out of this bucket and this bucket does not allow ATVs,” Feleen said.

ATVs and motorized vehicles, including dirt bikes, have been on the trail since it opened and each year the City Council has granted permission to the Sullivan County ATV Club for trail use beginning in late May. However, given the current circumstances, the council took the advice of Police Chief Alex Scott at last Wednesday’s council meeting and said it would wait until Scott can get more information before deciding what to do with the current request from the ATV club.

The 2.7 miles of the city-owned section of the Sugar River trail begins behind the community center on Summer Street, crosses Chestnut Street and runs along the Sugar River before crossing a bridge behind McDonald’s on Washington Street. From there, the trail parallels Washington Street to an orange gate beyond Home Depot, where the city’s section of the trail ends. From that point, ATVs can use the trail, which runs to Newport.

Mark Carrier, president of the Sullivan County ATV Club said the club would like some answers soon.

“We are trying to get to the bottom of this,” Carrier said. “Neither side can give proof. We want to find out what is right.”

If the ban is permanent, Carrier said, it would limit their access to other trails by ATV. There are three parking locations along the trail: one at either end and the third behind Burger King on Washington Street. If the club can’t use the trail, riders would have to load their machines onto trailers and move to another parking lot to reach other trails, including those on Arrowhead, a city-owned recreation area.

“It would be tough because we would probably lose the trails on Arrowhead,” said Carrier.

Carrier said the group first became aware of a problem last summer when the state Bureau of Trails denied the club a grant for maintenance work on the trail.

“That raised a red flag so we contacted the city but they didn’t know anything,” Carrier said.

Even without additional proof that motorized vehicles are banned, Santagate said he is not comfortable defying the federal government and allowing ATV use on the trails.

“Even if they can’t prove it, if the U.S. Department of Transportation says you can’t do that, maybe we can’t.

“This is a tough one,” Santagate said. “The council is faced with telling them (ATVs) to stay off (the trails.)”

Watson, the administrator of the state DOT’s Bureau of Planning and Community Assistance, recommends the city submit a waiver request, one of the four options the Federal Highway Administration proposed to resolve the issue. One recommends building separate trails with federal and state money from the Recreational Trails Program, which allows motorized vehicles.

“In a waiver, the city can say we understand the federal highway’s position; here is our justification for allowing ATVs. Here are our circumstances,” Watson said.

Carrier said the club, which does regular maintenance on the trail is still looking for “solid answers.”

“We are just hoping.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.