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Mini trucks up for debate at hearing in Hubbard County

Hubbard County residents Bruce and Dennis Bolton got the ball rolling in 2009 on a state law to allow mini trucks on roadways by local option. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

A public hearing has been set for Feb. 1 to determine if mini trucks should be allowed on Hubbard County roadways.

It has touched off a debate as to what types of vehicles should be allowed on public roadways. The decision isn't sitting well with Park Rapids Police Chief Terry Eilers, who doesn't want to see it become de rigueur to toddle up and down heavily trafficked streets on golf carts, ATVs, mini trucks or scooters.

Last week Hubbard County board members debated the safety of the small vehicles after the state gave a "local option" approval for them in 2009, while banning them from operating on state highways.

But it remains debatable how legal they are.

Mini trucks, according to a state law passed in 2009, were allowed by permit only on "designated roadways" if they were equipped with headlights, taillights, turn signals, rear view mirrors, seatbelts, a windshield and a parking brake.

"They're illegal," Eilers said flatly.

The Hubbard County Planning Commission recently passed a draft ordinance authorizing mini trucks on county and township roads under certain safety and weather conditions. If such trucks don't have lights, hours of operation are restricted to daylight hours.

They cannot be operated in inclement weather and a permit, driver's license and liability insurance would be required if the county board sanctions the ordinance.

And that concerns Eilers, because a countywide ordinance likely would pertain to Park Rapids unless the city officially opted out.

County commissioners worry that in passing an ordinance that by state law lumps other off-road vehicles into the same category, it might open the floodgates to a myriad of motorized equipment to mingle with other traffic.

"It's a lot less of a hazard if they're all going the same speed," commissioner Lyle Robinson said.

But they don't. Some are manufactured to go 25 mph; others travel at highway speeds. A vehicle in traffic must go the speed of traffic, Robinson said, to avoid endangering other motorists.

Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes has other reservations.

"They don't meet crash test specs," Aukes said of the off-road vehicles. Any ordinance must apply to "all or none," otherwise owners will be "squawking to our office," he promised.

"We let bicycles do it," Robinson countered. "There's nothing less safe than a bicycle."

"A motorcycle," commissioners Kathy Grell and Dick Devine said in unison.

"We can issue a permit but you still can't go on certain roads," Aukes said of the off-road vehicles.

"You can cross a state highway but not go down it," Hubbard County Attorney Don Dearstyne said. "Mini trucks are included with golf carts. Pretty soon we'll have golf carts running down the roads," he added.

"We already do," board members said, once again in unison.

"I've even seen riding lawnmowers on the roads and those aren't covered," said American Family Insurance agent Steve Noonan.

Kari Wiese, agent for several property and casualty insurers, said none of the companies she writes for would insure the mini trucks. Mini trucks are sold as off-road vehicles for farms and construction sites and weigh a ton at most.

Federal safety and emissions standards don't apply because they're sold as off-road vehicles.

Environmental Services Officer Eric Buitenwerf presented the county board a compilation of state statutes that allow or outlaw mini trucks.

Eilers said it is taking considerable discretion and restraint to enforce the law and public safety at the same time.

"We don't enforce it," he said. "But you're not supposed to ride four-wheelers and go-karts, but if they run it from their house to get to a trail, use the alleys, I have no problem with that. I've got some guys that are going to their fish houses with their little Rangers, stuff like that, and they're doing it in a safe and courteous manner...They've all been told if they do crash, if they do get involved in an accident, you might as well kiss your insurance goodbye because you can't do it by state law whether there's a city ordinance or not."

American Family is one of the few property and casualty insurers that will cover mini trucks, other than farm mutual agencies, since they are considered farm equipment.

But as public pressure to allow the vehicles on public roadways grows, local law enforcement officials may have no choice but to give the vehicles and drivers a pass.

The hearing begins at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 1 in the county boardroom.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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