A fight is brewing in Silverton over whether to allow the continued use of off-highway vehicles within town limits, which is likely headed to a highly contentious vote this spring.
Earlier this month, two petitions – one that seeks to open the entire town and another that would ban OHV use within town limits – were submitted in a joint letter to Silverton Town Hall.
A third petition was submitted Tuesday, said Interim Town Administrator Michelle Hamilton, which would give the Town Council the ability to tweak the existing ordinance to address concerns related to OHV use. That petition is pending approval.
In the spring 2014, Silverton residents voted to open some streets in town to OHVs in a 243-179 vote, about 58 percent to 42 percent.
Yet after three summer seasons, those who want to ban the vehicles say OHVs have overrun the town, caused damage and dust issues to roads and destroyed the peace and quiet in Silverton.
The two individuals who spearheaded the anti-OHV petition were Silverton residents Casey Carroll and Ray Dileo, who did not respond to requests for comment. They secured 44 signatures.
The two Silverton residents who led the pro-OHV petition, Patricia McKay and John Wright, declined to comment. That petition received 34 signatures.
In an email to former Silverton event coordinator Blair Runion that was obtained by The Durango Herald, Carroll questioned the economic boost some claim OHVs have on sales tax revenues, and instead pointed to the adverse impact the vehicles have in town and in the backcountry.
“We, the town, can recover from their presence if they were to be gone, but the high county?” Carroll wrote. “It will take years and years to recover. Silverton and the high country is losing its soul.”
Others point to the difficulty law enforcement has policing when OHVs are on roads they’re not allowed, as well as the accidents and other violations in the backcountry that require considerable response time.
In the summer, San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad’s weekly blotter in the Silverton Standard & the Miner is awash with OHV-related issues. Conrad said the Sheriff’s Office wrote 57 citations in 2015 and 68 in 2016, “with 10 gazillion verbal warnings and contacts.”
But those on the other side of the argument say the approval of limited OHV access in town has had a significant impact on the rise of tourism, profit to local businesses and sales tax revenue.
“It’s just another avenue that the town has with regards to revenue generation,” said Jim Harper, president of the Grand Imperial Hotel. “Silverton is on the map nationwide for being a recreational playground with regards to motorized vehicles.”
Larry Gallegos, who runs San Juan County Backcountry, which rents OHVs, said the existing law is “ideal as it can be,” but the town should improve signage on where the vehicles are allowed.
He stressed the uptick in revenue the town has seen in tourism from OHV enthusiasts, which spills into Silverton businesses such as lodging, retail and restaurants.
From 2010 to 2014, the average sales tax the town of Silverton received was about $679,270. In 2015, that number was at $826,760, and in 2016, the town received $955,979.
Hamilton said it’s difficult to pin that all on the introduction of OHVs.
“It would just be speculation to say OHVs are contributing to that spike because that sales tax comes from tourism in general,” Hamilton said. “It’s fair to speculate it is a large contribution to the rise in our sales tax. But if you look around the state, everyone’s had a rise in sales tax numbers.”
The third petition, which should be authorized by Thursday, offers another option for Silverton residents who would rather explore ways to make OHVs work in town.
A special meeting to address the petitions will be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. If it’s decided a measure should be put to a vote, it would likely occur in late April or May and require the town to hold a special election, which costs about $2,500 to $3,000.