Ordinance revisions allowing ATVs, golf carts on city streets move to council

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Spencer City Council Chambers sign

The Spencer City Council is expected to discuss and could vote on at its next meeting two revised ordinances that, if approved in three filings, would allow ATVs and golf carts to be driven on city streets.

The Public Safety Committee forwarded the ordinances to the council – both with recommendations that they be approved. The public safety committee is made up of three city council members, Ward 1 City Councilman Tom Nelson, Ward 5 City Councilman Ron Hanson and Ward 3 City Councilman Tracey Larsen, who serves as committee chair.

Under city code, both ATVs and golf carts are allowed now on some city streets but are restricted.

“Currently they’re allowed in a very regulated and very specific manner, which has, I would say, been sort of a burden to manage,” City Manager Amanda Mack said. “And we have gotten quite a few requests from members of the public to take a look at this again.”

The current ATV ordinance was approved five years ago by the city council. ATV owners must get a city permit and then can take their vehicles from their residence or place of storage directly to the city limits. They can be driven on county roads.

Spencer Police Chief Mark Warburton said he favors changing the ordinances. He said the ATV community in Spencer has voiced their desire to see a change and has followed the rules of the current ordinance without issue.

“The ATV community has been very respectful of our ordinances and obeying them,” Warburton said. 

Under the revised ATV ordinance, Spencer residents with driver’s licenses and state ATV registration would be able to drive the vehicles on city streets, but not on state highways 18 and 71, which includes Grand Avenue.

Updated state law now allows ATVs and golf carts to cross state highways at 90-degree crossings at intersections.

The revised city ordinance does away with a requirement that people acquire city permits to drive them on city streets. That’s something Warburton said people have taken issue with.

“Basically, it left the residents paying for an additional license above and beyond the required state license just to be able to go out into the county,” Warburton said of the current permit.

City Attorney Don Hemphill said there was a lot of “agonizing and discussion” that went into the ATV ordinance decision five years ago.

“There were concerns about safe operation of ATVs, but as the chief has explained, experience has been good,” City Attorney Don Hemphill said. 

Hemphill did not raise any issues.

“I don’t have any objections,” he said. “So long as the council understands that this ordinance will make it wide open. You can see (with this ordinance) an ATV going about anywhere in town, except down the highways.”

Helmets will not be required on the ATVs. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds will need to have a state safety certificate to drive them. Stock mufflers, not after market, and certain lighting requirements will apply.

For example, ATVs used for snow removal will need to have a yellow flashing light installed.

The ordinance allows for ATVs to be driven 24 hours a day. That differs from the county, which restricts their use from sunrise to sunset.

Warburton told the committee that he reached out to Milford, Spirit Lake, Okoboji and Clay County to view their ordinances. He also talked to the towns’ police chiefs.

“Everybody seems to think right now they’ve had good experience with the ATVs,” Warburton said. “They all said it was something that a lot of people took advantage of at first and now they’ve seen quite a reduction in it.”

Warburton cautioned that he did not want to make it sound as though there wouldn’t be a risk of accidents.

“What I want to try to do is promote rider accountability, no different than anything else that we choose to ride,” he said. “Would an ATV be more dangerous to ride than in a regular motor vehicle? Of course. You’d be exposed, just like in a motorcycle, from impact standards that way.”

Golf cart ordinance also moves to council

As with ATVs, golf carts are also much more restricted in their use.

Currently, according to city code, owners within the “vicinity” of either Spencer Municipal Golf Course or Spencer Golf and Country Club may drive their carts to and from the courses. Other than that, they are not allowed on city streets.

The revised golf carts ordinance would change that. Golf carts would be drivable on city streets – but not state highways running through town – from sunrise to sunset. The same highway crossing rules would apply.

“The difference is usually the golf carts don’t have the lighting, so it’s a sunrise to sunset ordinance where they’d be allowed,” Warburton said. 

The carts would need to have a slow-moving vehicle sign and a safety flag attached, a requirement in the current ordinance. A driver’s license would be needed, too.

No state registration is required on golf carts. They are not allowed to park on city streets or lots for that reason.

Warburton said allowing golf carts has become popular in vacation and retirement communities. He noted the lakes area communities that allow golf carts on streets has not seen many problems at all. 

Police chief preaches tolerance

Warburton acknowledged that if the ordinances are approved by the city council, then the public will need to get used to seeing more ATVs and golf carts on the streets.

“For the general public, it comes down to tolerances,” he said. “We haven’t seen the golf carts on there, so it’s going to take a little bit for the general public to get used to. But, similar to bicycles, the golf carts are slower moving and we just have to be tolerant to them, as well. I think it’ll be fine, to be honest with you.”

He added that “time could tell” if problems will arise that need to be addressed.

The city council is now expected to discuss the first of three filings for both ordinances at next week’s meeting. They would not go into effect until after the third filing is approved.

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