CLAREMONT — The Sullivan County ATV Club temporarily withdrew its request this week to use Cat Hole Road and other Class V roads as it continues to search for alternative parking and access to the popular Cat Hole Trails.
The Claremont City Council approved Wednesday an amended one-year permission for the Sullivan County ATV Club, a recreational all-terrain vehicle (ATV) organization with more than 400 members, to access 18 city-owned Class VI roads for ATV use, including Class VI roads that comprise or connect to the Cat Hole Trails, a 55-mile wooded trail system spanning across Claremont, Newport and Cornish.
However, this permission does not include four previously-permitted Class V roads that have been essential entries into the trail system. These Class V roads are Cat Hole Road, Roberts Hill Road, Slab City Road, and Veterans Park Road.
In an interview with The Eagle Times, Sullivan County ATV Club President Steven Wilkie explained the decision to remove these four roads from the permission request was procedural.
A state law change in 2019 added a requirement that a municipality notify all property abutters two weeks in advance before granting approval to access these roads, Wilkie explained. The club only discovered this change recently as the club’s previous permission request occurred prior to the law change.
“We wanted to make sure we were doing this by the book,” Wilkie said.
While receiving approval for Class VI roads is important to the Sullivan County ATV Club, without the Class V roads the club must find other alternatives for parking or trail access.
Class V roads are rural roads that the city must still maintain. Class VI roads are typically maintained by private or non-profit entities with the city’s permission, such as the Sullivan County ATV Club.
A recent controversy has arisen over the use of Cat Hole Road, a major trail access that the council has approved for the past 13 years. A surge in trail use in 2020, largely attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, has resulted in higher trail traffic and exacerbated nuisances upon abutting neighbors.
Michael and Maggie Saracino, who reside on Cat Hole Road, told the council last month there were typically a couple hundred ATV or dirtbike riders on their road every weekend last year. While the majority of riders were “respectful,” Michael Saracino said a large percentage would disregard the posted speed limits and state curfew which prohibits ATV use shortly after sunset.
The dirt pollution also resulted from a change in road material last year. Due to budget constraints, the Claremont Department of Public Works experimentally used a combination of ground asphalt and dirt hardpack to fill holes in the road instead of asphalt. The mix failed to hold together as hoped and instead more dirt was kicked up from passing vehicles.
The Saracino’s said the dirt pollution was so severe at times that the couple could not be outdoors or open their windows on warm days.
Morris said on Wednesday the Department of Public Works has placed that section of Cat Hole Road on its paving schedule this summer though that project’s completion will still hinge on the budget.
Wilkie said the club is currently exploring a handful of other options with property owners in Claremont and Newport and hopes to provide an update when the club and city council meet next on Wednesday, May 12.
The May 12 meeting will allow a better conversational opportunity between all parties, including property abutters and recreational riders, according to Wilkie, who added that some of the abutters are also avid ATV enthusiasts.
Wilkie said his ideal alternative would be a parking and access on the Newport side, which would still allow riders access to the Claremont trails.
The Sullivan County ATV Club still has a small parking lot, with a capacity for about eight or nine trucks and trailers, at Cat Hole Landing, located on the Class VI section of Cat Hole Road. The largest and most-used parking lot has been behind the Burger King on Washington Street. But this lot depends on having approved access to the Class V roads.
Wilkie also said he questions how much longer the Burger King will permit access to the club following the surge of ATV users last year.
“Burger King wasn’t open [for a period] during the shutdown, so they didn’t mind our expanding the parking area,” Wilkie said. “But I think that is going to change.”
Getting the council’s approval to use the Class VI roads still enables the Sullivan County ATV Club to do maintenance work on the trails and to apply for grants to fund trail repairs, Wilkie said. Class VI roads are not maintained by the municipality so the only trail management falls largely on non-profit recreational groups like the Sullivan County ATV Club and the Granite State Off-Road, a group for off-road jeep enthusiasts.
The Sullivan County ATV Club is still including the four Class V roads among its list of trails in current grant applications, according to Wilkie, because the applications are due May 7 and the council has not rendered a decision on those roads. Wilkie said the club can withdraw those roads from the application if the council decides against granting their access.
Wilkie also recommended the Claremont City Council consider creating an Off-Highway Recreational Vehicle (OHRV) Task Force, a non-advisory committee that would follow conditions and issues pertaining to off-road trails in Claremont and provide education and recommendations to the city council.
These task forces have been adopted successfully by other New Hampshire communities, according to Wilkie, as they have helped local officials make proactive decisions regarding trail management before conflicts arise.
A typical task force might include representatives from the local highway and police departments, the city council, the local business community and local OHRV groups.
This task force would need to consider impacts from all off-road recreational vehicles, including snowmobiles, four-wheeler jeeps and ATVs, Wilkie said.
“The Cat Hole Trails are known nationally,” Wilkie said. “Even if the city says no to our group, there will still be a ton of people up there using those roads who would not have the resources that we have to maintain them.”