After much discussion of noise pollution and quality of life, the Silver City Town Council approved an ordinance allowing the use of off-road sport vehicles — similar to dune buggies — on Silver City streets. This means that as of Friday, July 19, side-by-sides will be legal on municipal streets.
An audience of about 50 people watched the proceedings, and more than a dozen people gave public comment on the issue — though a good number of citizens also came to the meeting expressly to complain about noise and debris from fireworks during Fourth of July holiday celebrations.
Many of those people also advised councilors that they considered the addition of side-by-sides to town traffic both foolhardy and something that would contribute to an increase in noise pollution. The other half of Tuesday’s audience was in favor of the ordinance; the two groups sat on opposite sides of the room.
“Here we are once again,” said District 3 Councilor Jose Ray, who has brought the ordinance legalizing the off-road vehicles in Silver City before the council twice before. Ray has argued that allowing side-by-sides — also known as UTVs, RTVs and ORVs — would allow more citizens access to affordable transportation.
“We all deserve the chance to have high quality of life,” Ray said, adding his oft-repeated threat to bring the matter to the people in a popular vote. “If it doesn’t pass, I am going to ask for a special election.”
At that, a man in the audience responded, “Yes!” Town Attorney Robert Scavron has previously called Ray’s special election threat an unlikely solution, and said it would “set a bad precedent.”
In a 3-1 vote, with District 2 Councilor Lynda Aiman-Smith being the lone dissenting voice, the council passed Ray’s hard-fought ordinance. In a surprise move, District 1 Councilor Cynthia Ann Bettison abandoned her previous position against the ordinance, joining Ray and District 4 Councilor Guadalupe Cano.
“We can change an ordinance as needed — ordinances are not set in stone,” Bettison said. “They can be amended, rescinded and reworked.”
Silver City Mayor Ken Ladner told the Daily Press that even if Bettison had voted “nay,” he would have voted to approve the ordinance.
“I would have voted yes, because I felt like we should at least give it a chance to work, and if it doesn’t work we can rescind it,” he said. “Councilor Ray has promised that he and the other ORV groups will make sure they don’t do anything to violate the public trust — he said they would police themselves. We’re giving them an opportunity to show that these can be used without having any adverse effects on the community.”
Even though the ordinance is now law, the mayor emphasized that Ray’s ordinance would be crafted into something that he hoped would satisfy both sides of the debate.
“We are going to be looking at a lot of additional amendments to the ordinance that would address some of the concerns that those citizens have,” he said.
Those concerned citizens worry that the off-road vehicles will create unnecessary noise and cause accidents. During public comment Tuesday, three members of the town’s Trails and Open Space Advisory Committee spoke against the ordinance, all expressing the belief that allowing side-by-sides on town roads will encourage illegal behavior.
“The concern is that if the ordinance is passed and there is increased traffic of ORVs and other four-wheeled vehicles,” said committee member Ken Sexton, “this could put increased pressure on that park area. All kinds of vehicles are going into the San Vicente area” already, he said.
Open Space Committee Chairman Mike Ferris echoed Sexton’s comments.
“It’s easy to clip a piece of wire and go in there,” he said. “I own an RTV and I know how fun it is. My concern is not that any one ORV owner is going to be irresponsible; but some may succumb to the temptation.”
Silver City Police Chief Fred Portillo told councilors that he still had concerns about safety — but also said that he had spoken to other police departments around the state where side-by-sides are allowed on streets, and there appeared to be little trouble associated with it.
“The issues are very minimal,” the chief said. He said he had learned a lot from talking to colleagues in Alamogordo, Clovis, Truth or Consequences and Grants, among others. “The hardest part is bringing people into compliance. And it will take manpower hours.”
Portillo repeated what he said when the notice of intent was up for approval.
“I have safety concerns, but I am willing to work with you on this,” he said.
One issue facing UTV drivers is that the off-road vehicles are still prohibited from using state and federal highways — U.S. 180, N.M. 90 and N.M. 15.
“We will need to work with the DOT,” said Town Manager Alex Brown.
The New Mexico Department of Transportation, which maintains state and federal highways within the state, prohibits the use of the vehicles on its roads — but it does grant exemptions, according to Brown.
“We need to find out what highways they would allow us to use,” he said.
Meanwhile, the side-by-sides will be allowed to cross state-maintained highways, but will not be permitted to drive the length of major Silver City thoroughfares like Silver Heights Boulevard and Hudson Street.
“We would like the citizens to know that we didn’t take this lightly, and we know a lot of them had concerns and were against it,” Ladner told the Daily Press. “We’re asking them to be open-minded and give it a chance — with the understanding that if it’s not working, we will rescind it.”