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Snowmobiles stay for the winter in NL

Council decides to keep routes, tables action on ordinance

NORTH LIBERTY– The City of North Liberty will allow snowmobiles to continue to travel through town.
At least, for now.
At its Nov. 11 meeting, the council considered an ordinance amendment that would revoke recreational snowmobiling within city limits, change the existing routes and restrict the operation of snowmobiles to the hours between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.
City staff recommended the ordinance change as a result of safety concerns and citizen complaints, said North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar.
“We receive about a dozen, more or less, individual complaints per year, including concerns about noise, property damage, snow being pushed back into cleared driveways, and so on,” Heiar said Monday.
However, several snowmobile enthusiasts spoke to the council in defense of their sport, offering arguments compelling enough to convince the council to keep current routes the same for the upcoming season.
Official adoption of the ordinance amendment was tabled for future discussion, as council wished to talk more about adjusting the hours of operation for snowmobiles.
Derrick Parker, North Liberty resident and secretary of the Johnson County Snowdrifters Club, has been working with Heiar and staff to address the city’s concerns over the past few years, he said.
“We have voluntarily removed the trail down (Highway) 965 over concerns on damaged property,” Parker said, referring to an incident last season when a snowmobile traveled across private property that had been newly sodded. Parker said photographs of the terrain later showed that no damage had been done to the grass.
“We didn’t feel (the complaint) was founded but we thought it was a goodwill gesture to the city,” said Parker. The group also re-routed a trail that went too close to a resident’s property.
“It’s not like we have issues from residents in town that we are aware of,” said Parker. “We are actively working with the city to make sure the trails are appropriately marked, the signs are taken down (at season’s end) and that we immediately address any concerns. We care deeply about going through North Liberty. It’s one of our key routes.”
Heiar said the city deals tries to work collaboratively on complaints with the Snowdrifters.
“Generally, (Streets Superintendent) Don Colony will make contact with the snowmobile club when a concern is called in, especially when it pertains to property damage.  When someone calls in about noise– as long as it’s within the time restrictions provided in the code– or snow being pushed into a driveway, we explain that snowmobiles are allowed on certain trails within the community.”
Existing trails pass by the city’s gas stations, restaurants, storage units where some snowmobilers store their machines, True Value Hardware store and the Sleep Inn hotel, bringing commerce to those businesses and convenience to snowmobilers.
Therefore, Parker said, while the club proposed an alternative route trough town, his group did not agree with the amendment.
Five other snowmobile enthusiasts addressed the council to argue for the benefits of embracing the sport.
Matt Peoples of Coralville said he and his family only recently picked up snowmobiling as a pastime, and on trips to the states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota, they observed that other communities in the Midwest support snowmobiling and welcome riders.
“Those little towns thrive on it,” Peoples said. He emphasized the responsible nature of Snowdrifters members. “As an outsider, I feel guilty because I lumped snowmobilers into this stereotype that I was completely wrong about. They work hard to make this sport work, setting up the trails, maintaining them all year long, and putting up signs… there is a lot that goes into it. This route starts in southern Iowa and you can ride all the way to Canada on it. But when you take out the city part, you lose your access to stopping for lunch or for fuel. It is important to have access to those restaurants and fuel sources.”
Kurt Heiar of North Liberty reminded the council that snowmobilers give back to their communities in other ways.
“We get called out by the Johnson County emergency team when we get blizzards or ice storms, when we have cars in ditches that security vehicles can’t get to,” said Kurt Heiar. He said the Snowdrifters is representative of a large cross-section of local taxpayers, including attorneys and University faculty members, retail workers, union employees, and others, and he has never seen any rider disrespect neighbors or ride off designated trails.
“We have hundreds and hundreds of people who belong to our club. It’s the fastest growing sport in the Midwest,” said Kurt Heiar. “We have a unique opportunity. It would be a crushing situation if you took away the connectors for us.”
Jan Heeren of Fairfax said she has been pleased with the way North Liberty has been carefully planned as it continues to grow.
“I would hope we could plan for snowmobiling as the city grows, and take the time to find places for trails and reserve that space so we don’t have this again, where trails need to be moved,” Heeren said. Changing the existing route would make it more difficult for snowmobilers to access businesses, she said, “and people will probably decide to go elsewhere if they can.”
Given the immediacy of the issue for the Snowdrifters, who were ready to mark the trails in anticipation of the season’s first snow, council members said they were agreeable to keeping the current snowmobile routes in place for this upcoming winter, starting with councilor Chris Hoffman.
“I don’t think the case has been made to take away a route when there are so many benefits to having it go through North Liberty; not only for the businesses but also for the snowmobilers,” Hoffman said. “The difficult part is the growth we’ve taken on. I don’t believe the damage coming to the community is as it’s been presented. I think we can have a good system and keep it the way it was last year.”
Councilor Dave Moore said he agreed with keeping the routes close to commercial areas, and was inclined to leave the ordinance alone. Councilwoman Coleen Chipman, a former snowmobile enthusiast whose brother owns a snowmobile business, concurred. Though she also has a relative who owns a business along Penn Street who did encounter problems with snowmobilers, Chipman said she would like to keep the route the same.
“I respect them coming to us and saying there was a problem. As long as we have these conversations and keep an open door both ways, that would be appreciated,” Chipman said.
Councilors Brian Wayson and Terry Donahue said they were amenable to keeping the routes the same this year, but both expressed the desire to amend the trails as the city continues to grow.
“We are getting big, and it’s going to be a problem in awhile,” Wayson said.
“These things do need to be addressed. It may be okay to sustain those routes right now, but maybe in the not-too-distant future, the proposed route would be more reasonable,” said Donahue. “I understand the stance the staff is making. I can’t disagree with why they brought it up.”
With a nod to the Snowdrifters to post trail signs along the existing route for this season, the council was still uncertain about setting hours of operation within city limits.
“Being a snowmobiler before, we were never home by 9 o’clock,” said Chipman. “It is very common to be out until 11 or 12 o’clock at night. At the same time, we have to respect other people’s right to quiet.”
Nine p.m. would also be consistent with the city’s noise ordinance. Parker cited information on sound levels from a report authored by the American Council of Snowmobile Associations that states modern snowmobiles operating at a distance of 50 feet have a lower decibel level than motorcycle or diesel truck engines. At the city’s speed limit of 20 mph, snowmobiles make comparatively little noise. “You are not stopping vehicles from driving through town at 9 o’clock at night. So I’m not sure why that is even in there,” Parker said.
The council agreed to table action on the ordinance until a future meeting when they could discuss hours of operation in depth.
View the proposed ordinance amendment in the city council’s Nov. 11 packet at northlibertyiowa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/2014-11-11-00-complete-City-Council-packet.pdf. For more information about the impacts of snowmobiling on the environment and economy, visit the Snowdrifters’ website at www.iowa-snowdrifters.org/snowdrifters-archives.