By some estimates, there are more than 60,000 unregistered all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes in Connecticut. There are also very few places where you can legally ride them.
The result is a long-running guerrilla campaign of "rogue" riders taking to the streets of cities and towns, private lands, and the trails of state parks and forests. It's a controversy that's sucked in the legislature and Gov. Dannel Malloy, leading to a huge increase in potential fines for violators and the veto of a bill aimed at forcing the state to open up land for off-roading.
"This has been a chronic problem," says state Rep. Patricia Dillon, a New Haven lawmaker who introduced legislation to allow for the ratcheting up of local fines (from a max of $250 to as much as $2,000) for illegal ATVers and dirt-bike scofflaws.
One sign of how bad it's gotten was an incident last year when a young girl waiting at a New Haven bus stop was injured by a dirt-bike idiot riding on a sidewalk. A few months ago, that city's cops launched a 10-week sting/investigation to crack down on outlaw riders. They issued 18 warrants and came up with 15 arrests.
Here's another indicator: More than 320 people have been arrested in the past couple of years for illegally riding all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes on state property; and another 90 off-roaders were hit with warnings.
"There's just way too many of them," Jerry Shinners, an Avon resident and a top official with the New England Trail Rider Association, says of the huge population of ATV and dirt-bike folks eager to use their machines. "The number-one thing is nobody has a place to ride."
The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection does have a detailed policy and application process for proposals to allow off-road vehicles on state park and forest land.
Critics say that policy is so detailed and intricate that the cost of applying is prohibitive. They believe state officials created this bureaucratic maze simply to avoid having to approve any land for ATVs and dirt bikes.
"Essentially, they do not want to have any riding," says Shinners. "It opens up too many problems for them... The DEEP [officials] knew they wouldn't have enough money to do all the things they'd need to do."
"What we're seeing now is a rogue effect," Shinners argues. He says there's a rising level of frustration among all sorts of off-road types who have spent upwards of $2,000 for an ATV or dirt bike and have few places to ride legally. "What would you do?" he asks.
Malloy last week vetoed a bill off-road advocates hoped would pressure the state into approving some state trails for ATVs. The governor argued the issue needed more thought and cooperation from everybody.
"We welcome and encourage outdoor recreation," Malloy wrote in his veto message. "But we must carefully balance [that concept] with our fundamental mission of protecting our natural resources for future generations. The speed, noise, and power of all-terrain vehicles bring greater potential for degradation or destruction of our unique and delicate natural resources."
Groups like the Connecticut Audubon Society were lobbying hard for that veto. They insisted that "ATVs can cause widespread damage to wildlife habitat" and ruin the outdoor experience for all sorts of birders, hikers and nature lovers.
Shinners and other off-road advocates say Connecticut is losing all sorts of revenue and recreational tourism by forcing ATVers and dirt bikers to go elsewhere to ride.
According to a recent legislative report, Rhode Island does allow legally registered dirt bikes to ride along dirt roads through state forests, but bans them and ATVs from state trails. New York also bans off-road vehicles from state forests and parks.
Massachusetts, on the other hand, now has trails for ATVs and motorcycles in eight state forests, including three that require specific permits, which are limited to a certain number per day.
Pete terHorst, spokesman for the All-Terrain Vehicle Association, says that "finding areas to ride is challenging" for states in the heavily populated and congested northeastern U.S. The problem is particularly tough in smaller states that don't have all that much open land available, he adds.
There are a few places in Connecticut where off-roaders can go.
Dirt-bike riders can take to the trails for events at Cockaponset State Forest in Haddam and Shenipsit State Forest in Stafford, but only during state-approved and organized Enduro events organized by clubs. Those bikes also must be street legal.
Street-legal machines can also use a 60-mile trail network in Pachaug State Forest in Voluntown. There are also several privately owned tracks around the state, but most are for club members only. There is a federal area available to trail riders around the Thomaston Dam that's maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Connecticut's policy on ATV and dirt bikes using state forest and parklands was set up in 2002. It created requirements for people who want to set up off-road vehicle trails on state land, including environmental assessments and stiff requirements to avoid problems with endangered species and delicate water systems.
"There are safety issues and also environmental issues because [ATVs and dirt bikes] can damage our land," says DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain.
He says the state hasn't even gotten any requests under that policy plan.
Shinners disagrees. He says he's tried multiple times in the past 30 years to get the state to open some lands for dirt bike and ATV riding.
"The one proposal they looked at was shot down," he told lawmakers at a hearing earlier this year. "It was a flood control dam [area] protecting Stafford. No animal worries or endangered species. They shot it down because it would be wetlands."
"As far as I have seen, the state has not given one inch in trying to create trails," Shinners insisted. He says the idea of requiring all ATVs and dirt bikes to be registered and pay registration fees to the state won't cover the cost of maintaining trails. (According to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, only 2,392 ATVs in Connecticut are registered with the state.)
"So many states have riding," complains Shinners, pointing to policies in New England states like New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
George Libby, whose family owns Libby's Motoworld in New Haven, says lots of Connecticut riders travel outside this state just to ride legally. "The state is losing hundreds of thousands of [tourism and equipment sales] dollars just because people don't have a place to ride," he insists. "The state is missing the boat."
Rep. Dillon, while pleased that cities and towns will be able to hit outlaw riders with higher fines ($1,000 for a first violation, $1,500 for a second, and $2,000 for a third and subsequent violations), doesn't think this is going to completely solve the problem.
She knows the fines are "only one tool in our tool kit" and that more needs to be done to control those outlaw riders.
Shinners isn't sure that any increase in fines will stop some off-roaders from riding where they shouldn't.
"If you ask me, they're going to continue to ride illegally no matter what you do," he says. "There will never be enough [penalties]; and they will never be enforced enough."