JACKSON, Maine — During the pandemic-related state of emergency in the summer of 2020, officials from the Waldo County town of Jackson made the decision to temporarily cancel selectboard meetings. According to the town website, the selectmen would meet only to sign warrants to pay bills and do other business necessary to the functioning of the town.
Nevertheless, in August 2020, without posting it to a public agenda and without public input, a meeting attended by only one town selectman resulted in a permit to allow all terrain vehicles to be operated on five municipal roads.
The move has upset some residents, who worry that their quiet, rural community of 620 people could see an influx of motors and riders. They also feel betrayed by the decision since in 2008 the town said no to a request to open roads to ATV use in a town-wide vote.
The decision also comes at a time when ATV use is on the rise. In the last 30 years, registered vehicles have more than tripled.
Among those opposed is David McDaniel, a farmer who lives on the Long Swamp Road. Most days, just a handful of vehicles drive by on the rough, partially discontinued road, and he and his neighbors like it that way.
McDaniel’s road along with Hadley Mill Road, Chase Road, Hatch Road and Littlefield Road, are the ones permitted to have ATVs, according to the permit.
“All of us are in fear of going from nothing to craziness,” he said. “Our fear is that our lives are going to be turned completely upside down.”
Maine law allows municipal governments to designate public roads as ATV access routes, which is what happened last year in Jackson.
The roads weren’t posted for ATVs, though, until August 2021, when McDaniel and other residents saw the signs and learned about the change.
“I see these signs and I go, ‘What the hell is going on,’” said Louise Shorette, a longtime resident of Long Swamp Road.
Neighbors went to a “horribly contentious” selectboard meeting to express their displeasure, McDaniel said.
“We tried to explain as diplomatically as we could that they should not have done this without public participation,” he said. “We don’t own the road, but neither does the ATV club, nor does the selectmen. The town owns the road.”
At the next board meeting, after hearing more from unhappy residents, the selectmen shifted course. They wouldn’t rescind the permit, but would take the road signs down and let residents vote on the question at the annual town meeting in March 2022.
This kind of conflict is happening in other places, especially as more people are taking to the outdoors on ATVs during the pandemic, according to Tim Peabody, the deputy commissioner of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
The state’s decision to allow municipalities to open their roads was made to accommodate communities that had a lot of commerce associated with trail use, especially for snowmobiles, Peabody said.
“ATVs just came along with it,” he said.
But ATV use is increasing in Maine, rising from 21,447 registered vehicles in 1992 to 78,467 resident and non-resident registered vehicles this year. Machines have gotten larger, too, which has led to more questions, including whether they should be operated in the travel way and whether they will damage the roads and cause erosion.
Increased outdoor recreation of any type, including snowmobiling, hunting, boating and ATVs, can lead to tension, which mutual respect can help diffuse, he said.
“There’s a lot of dirt roads in Waldo County and throughout rural Maine, where people have an expectation of their neighborhood,” Peabody said. “It goes back to being respectful of your surroundings. When you’re racing down a public road with an ATV, if it’s a quiet public road, maybe you ought to proceed accordingly.”
Most of Jackson’s existing ATV trails are located west of Route 7, a busy state highway that bisects the town, according to Eric Nickerson, president of the Jackson Wheel N Ski Club. Riders who live elsewhere must haul their ATVs to the trails.
“They would like to have access to the trail system,” he said.
Selectman Bryan Menard signed the permit to open the roads on Aug. 11, 2020, a day before Selectman Bruce Littlefield, who had been ailing, passed away. According to the scant, handwritten minutes made available after the meeting, neither Littlefield nor the third selectman, John Work, was listed as present that evening.
It is not clear how permits in Jackson are typically granted. Phone calls to Menard, Work and Selectman Don Nickerson, who is Eric Nickerson’s father and who took office after Littlefield’s death, were not immediately returned.
Some residents question whether the permit was properly obtained, given that the selectmen did not appear to have a quorum and that the meeting that took place at a time when selectboard meetings were posted as canceled until further notice. Cathy Conlow, the executive director of the Maine Municipal Association, said she could not comment on the specific situation.
“I don’t know what authorities are vested in individual selectboard members. Everybody may have different operating rules,” she said.
Eric Nickerson said he believes the selectmen were acting within their rights as road commissioners.
“I feel that things were gone through the proper channels,” he said.
But Shorette has her doubts.
“I really believe it was done illegally,” she said.
Eric Nickerson said he has tried to allay people’s concerns about ATV use. He believes that some specific worries are overblown, including a fear that opening the roads would connect the town to other, heavily trafficked ATV trails in neighboring Thorndike and elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of misinformation, like that this is going to be a new exit for the I-95 of ATV use. I really don’t think that will be the case,” he said. “Generally, most people on ATVs don’t want to use paved roads. They just want to use them to access trails.”
But in 2008, things were different. That’s when a group of rowdy ATV riders “pretty much terrorized the neighborhood,” Nickerson said. That’s when residents voted 40 to 27 against opening the roads to ATVs at the annual town meeting.
For McDaniel, that vote felt like a mandate against opening up municipal roads to ATVs.
Nora Wormwood, another Long Swamp Road resident, said she and her husband moved to Jackson in 2017 because it seemed like a great place to raise a family.
She’s glad that the town at large will vote next spring on whether to allow ATVs on her road. She hopes they will vote against it.
“I don’t want to vilify the people who use ATVs, because that’s a lot of Mainers,” she said. “But the idea of having this become a high-traffic area [is not great].”