Huntsville, TN – If a plan envisioned by County Commission comes to fruition, every road in Scott County will be opened to all-terrain vehicles, with one caveat: riders must purchase a $10 permit to operate their ATVs on public streets.
That's the plan detailed by 5th District County Commissioner Trent Cross. And while the idea of opening roads to ATV riders under a pay-to-ride system seemed to have the support of most — if not all — of his fellow commissioners, the issue of how revenue from the theoretical permit fee would be divided has already become a point of contention.
For his part, Cross — who chairs County Commission's Intergovernmental Committee — did not seem to mind how the money is split. He proposed that it be split 50/50 between county law enforcement and the county's general fund. But other commissioners — chiefly the 7th District's Rick Burke — argued that a portion of the revenue should go to the road department. Cross seemed amenable to that, suggesting that the road department could be the recipient of a fourth of the revenue. The main thing, he said, is "let's find something we can agree on and not just sit here and do nothing again."
The pay-to-ride system stems from County Commission's recent decision to authorize ATVs on a number of public roads within the county's adventure tourism district south of Huntsville. That measure, which was approved by a 10-3 vote of commissioners last month, took advantage of a path that was cleared by a recent state law promoting adventure tourism in rural communities.
The law, authored by state Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, was at least partially influenced by Scott County. Since Brimstone Recreation was established a decade ago, ATV tourism has been growing locally, and the county's tourism promoters have successfully secured a trademark declaring Scott County the "adventure tourism capital of Tennessee."
Such a permit system would not be unlike a system that has been implemented in the city of Rocky Top in Anderson County. There, officials sought — and received — an amendment to a state statute allowing ATVs on S.R. 25W through the heart of town. While the state law does not explicitly authorize the local government to charge a permit fee to riders, Rocky Top officials have chosen to do so. Reportedly, Campbell County and the city of LaFollette are eyeing a similar pay-to-ride concept there, where the Sundquist unit of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area attracts thousands of ATV riders annually.
However, the legality of Rocky Top's pay-to-ride decision has already been questioned in the absence of a state law that authorizes a permit fee. It has been explained privately that a permit system in Scott County would be even thornier, since state law generally prohibits ATVs on public streets.
To that end, Cross indicated his belief that a pay-to-ride system would withstand scrutiny unless the state explicitly intervened.
"There's no law that says we can't do it, and until there's a law that says we can't do it, we can do it," Cross said.
Cross said that opening all roads to ATVs — "they're going to ride them anyway," he said — would generate a significant amount of revenue for Scott County, perhaps easing the tax burden of property owners. He indicated that 30,000 attendees are expected for Brimstone's Paragon event next week, which will feature Hank Williams Jr. in concert. If every attendee purchased a permit, he said, that single event could generate $300,000 for the county, $150,000 of which would go into the general fund.
Contacted by the Independent Herald Wednesday, a Brimstone spokesperson said the 30,000 attendance estimate did not originate with them and that actual attendance will likely be much lower.
However, advocates for a pay-to-ride system will point out that it isn't just tourists who will purchase permits, as ATV riding is a significant pastime for local residents of Scott County.
Cross's proposal would set an annual permit fee at $10, plus a $2.50 administrative fee. He said Sheriff Ronnie Phillips has agreed to sell permits through the justice center, and that convenience stores and other businesses could also agree to sell permits, similar to hunting licenses.
No commissioner indicated that he or she is opposed to the proposal, though several questioned how the money should be divided up.
Burke led the charge that some money should be received by the road department. In the past, Burke has said the road department needs financial assistance with maintaining River Road in the ATV event areas. Currently, the road department receives its funding from the county's share of the state gas tax. Scott County contributes less than $300 annually to the road department's budget.
"I do work for the road department; that's no secret," said Burke. "But I don't care who the road superintendent is or whether or not I work there. The problem over there is the roads. That's where the problem lies at. We ask the road superintendent, whoever it may be, to go do all this for us, and we don't give him a dime. Again we're trying to raise money and we don't give the road department a dime."
Road Superintendent Dick Sexton echoed Burke's sentiment, saying Scott County is already 50 years behind in its road needs and is desperate for more money for road maintenance.
"I don't mean to stir anything up, but where's it going to cost the sheriff's department any more for these events?" Sexton said.
Several other commissioners seemed sympathetic to the road department's request for a portion of the new revenue, while others suggested the permit system be passed by County Commission and the money divided up afterwards.
Following a lengthy discussion, a special-called meeting was set to discuss the issue more in-depth.