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Lewis legislators seek to mediate dispute among ATV backers

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LOWVILLE — Can’t we all just get along?

That was the message Lewis County officials gave to divergent factions of all-terrain-vehicle enthusiasts during a tense session Thursday.

“If we all don’t work together, I can guarantee we won’t have a trail system,” Legislator Jerry H. King, R-West Leyden, told a roomful of ATV supporters.

However, the problems raised during the 1-hour session, for the most part monetary disputes between the Tug Hill Adirondack ATV Association and a couple of local clubs, appear to be “not insurmountable,” Mr. King said.

Clifford White from the Highmarket Wheelers ATV Club, who requested a meeting with legislators at their regular meeting a couple of weeks ago, suggested that a handful of legislators meet with representatives of the association and clubs to help iron out any lingering problems.

Legislator Richard C. Lucas, chairman of the legislative Economic Development Committee, said he would make a commitment to set up such a meeting after the holiday season.

A primary issue for the Highmarket club and the Barnes Corners-based Tug Hill Wheelers involves an administrative change in the county’s four-year-old ATV trail permit program.

The county contracts with the Lewis County Chamber of Commerce to sell ATV permits, with the chamber receiving a 10 percent administrative fee. Permits cost $40 for an ATV owned by a member of a club in the Tug Hill Adirondack ATV Association and $80 for a machine owned by a nonmember.

During the first years of the program, riders who bought permits — whether in person at the chamber office or at several local businesses, by telephone or on the chamber website — could simultaneously join the club of their choice for a $25 membership fee. The proceeds then were distributed to the individual clubs.

In 2011, $24,050 was collected, with the majority going to the Tug Hill Wheelers, according to chamber records.

However, the program was altered this year so the chamber would offer memberships only for the Tug Hill Adirondack ATV Association, not specific clubs, and the association — which had consisted of representatives of three Lewis County clubs and four others based outside the county — collected $18,975 from it.

Chamber Executive Director Anne L. Merrill said that the administrative change was suggested primarily because of how difficult and time-consuming it was to verify riders were members of individual clubs, and that things went much more smoothly this year.

However, while the shift apparently was discussed by Mr. Lucas’s committee, a cursory check Friday by county officials did not determine whether it ever was approved formally by that panel or the full Legislature, according to Legislature Vice Chairman Michael A. Tabolt, R-Croghan. Setting an official, board-approved policy likely will be part of the discussions with club and association officials, he said.

The move was perceived by many club members as an attempt to effectively get rid of them in favor of the regional association.

“If our clubs dissolve, I don’t know what you’re going to do,” Mr. White said.

Tug Hill Wheelers, which saw a drop in membership from nearly 900 to roughly 350 after permit-buyers no longer could join automatically, in October responded to the change by leaving the association, meaning its members now would not be eligible for permit discounts for the 2013 season.

Members of the two clubs asked legislators to consider allowing only members of the three Lewis County clubs, also including Brantingham-based Black River Valley 4 Wheelers, to receive the discount and removing the association from the equation.

They also complained about lack of financial assistance from the association, delayed responses to requests for county trail equipment and derogatory postings on Internet sites that they blamed on association leaders.

Association President Joseph Z. Onyon countered that his organization has tried to help the clubs that are doing the most trail development work. He denied involvement in any smear campaign.

Neil H. Pepper, a member of the Brantingham club, said that his group does not have such objections and that it was disconcerting to hear the complaints.

“Everybody wants the same thing,” he said. “Everybody wants a good, strong ATV system.”

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