Before You Buy That All-Terrain Vehicle: Where Can You Ride It?

Posted on January 6, 2014


An explosion in ATV ownership, coupled with a lack of public trails for their use, is a recipe for disappointment.  It is not a license to trespass on private property.

When we moved to our current home with its two acres of woods, Hubby mentioned it at work.  “Ooooohhh,” said one of his co-workers, “Can we bring our dirt bikes out there?”  Hubby paused in just a bit of disbelief.  “Ummm – no, man, it’s woods.”  “Oh, we don’t mind,” replied the co-worker.  He didn’t have anywhere to ride; he lived in a typical Northern Virginia neighborhood with its sardine-like rows of homes, and kept his dirt bikes on a trailer parked in the street.  “Uh, well, two acres isn’t as big as you think it is,” said Hubby, and that was the end of it.

Well, at least the guy had asked.  A lot of ATV riders don’t.

A few years ago, my neighbor and I discovered a brand-new “No Trespassing” sign along a trail that the horses had been using for some time.  My neighbor, being a responsible adult, left me holding the horses while she knocked on the property owner’s door to ask about the sign.  “Oh, the horses are welcome,” said the owner, “but we’ve been having problems with dirt bikes cutting through.”

Then we had some hurricane or other that knocked down a lot of trees.  Another neighbor (let’s call her Johanna) confided that her back woods looked like pick-up sticks, but she was glad because it would stop her obnoxious middle-aged neighbor “Brent” from riding his ATV back there.  He had asked permission when he first moved in; she said no.  He helped himself to her land anyway.  And then after the storm, he had the gall to tell her that she had to clean up the downed trees “to open the trails!”  Slight problem:  there weren’t supposed to be any trails back there.

Not long after that, neighbor “Karen” discovered that some knucklehead had started using her land as a dump.  We got out there as a group and bagged up the trash, then restored her fence to keep vehicles out.  By this time, the kids at the far end of the road had made quite the habit of riding their ATVs on her land, which features a large, hilly field.  While we were putting up the fence, we asked if she wanted to leave a little gap to allow the ATV riders to keep coming through.  “No, I don’t think so,” she said.  “They can ride somewhere else.”  She closed the gate to her field, and posted a “No Trespassing” sign.  That didn’t last long.  The ATV riders – both Brent and the kids – just opened her gate and helped themselves to her field.

ATV-Use-ProhibitedNot only do our ATV-afflicted neighbors ignore Karen’s gate and “No Trespassing” sign, they also ignore the “ATV Use Prohibited” sign posted by the power company where that property joins Karen’s.  One day the power station manager was out there and told me they had tremendous problems at another, larger station a few miles away.  “It looks like a Motocross track,” he said.

The funny thing is, Most of the ATV riders around here are kids.  The kids’ parents bought them those vehicles, which have size and power restrictions according to a child’s size and age (it’s the law).  The parents make sure they wear their helmets (it’s the law).   Yet it does not enter their heads to teach their kids another big part of ATV law in Virginia:  “No all-terrain vehicle shall be operated… on another person’s property without the written consent of the owner of the property.”  Think they are going around getting written consent from these landowners?  Ha, NO.  Not only do they not obtain consent, they actively and willfully trespass when signs are posted.  Why?  Because, as reports,  ATV ownership has skyrocketed at the same time that there are not that many places to ride an ATV legally in Virginia, and those places usually have memberships, rules, fees.  It’s not like hiking or mountain biking, where you just grab your stuff and head for the nearest park.

If you’re like Hubby’s old co-worker, you might own a 1/4 acre lot that’s mostly occupied by your house.  If you’re as lucky as neighbor Brent, you might have five acres, but as Brent has discovered, even that gets pretty boring pretty fast.  Legal places to ride aren’t all that convenient, or free.  From there, it’s just a small adjustment in one’s thinking to decide that other property owners and businesses shouldn’t mind you using their property, and off you go.

Thankfully, I have not heard of any ATV-related violent confrontations around here, but those have been on the rise, too.  Indeed, run a quick search on “ATV trespass,” and you will get more than you ever wanted to know about a nationwide problem of exasperated property owners, property damage, hostilities, threats from both sides, violence, arrests, you name it.

While ATV users are not the only people to assume that they get to decide what to do with another person’s property – hikers, mountain bikers, dog-walkers and equestrians all have also been guilty – it does seem that it’s mostly the motorized crowd who very pointedly ignore, intimidate or even assault owners for trying to keep trespassers off their land, or who come back and tear down signs and barriers, or cause other damage.

What’s different about the motorized crowd?  Is this a Redneck thing?  Or is it simply that this tends to be a crowd of people who buy a significantly expensive toy without ever checking on where they can actually use it in the first place?