ATV rules irk Big Isle teens
By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
By Kevin Dayton
HILO, Hawai'i — Sean DeSa is too young to drive a car, but he already has four traffic tickets.
To say the 15-year-old is unhappy about this is an understatement.
On March 22, when DeSa rode his all-terrain vehicle down Paradise Drive in the rural subdivision of Hawaiian Paradise Park, police stopped him. Now he is due in court to answer for four alleged traffic violations, and his $6,000 ATV is parked behind his house.
DeSa says he doesn't bother the neighbors with his ATV, doesn't joyride, doesn't make trouble. He just wants to use the vehicle to travel the rugged Puna coastline near his home to get to the best fishing spots.
Thousands of ATVs have been sold on the Big Island in recent years. Many of them are used by youths who want to trail ride and race. But DeSa and other teenagers complain there are too few places they can ride legally.
County streets and roads that carry vehicular traffic are off-limits to ATVs. Moreover, it is often difficult for teens without cars to find a way to transport ATVs to legal trails.
Consequently, there is enormous temptation to zoom down roads or trespass on private trails close to home.
"They should just let us ride down here," DeSa said, standing in front of his Puna home. ATVs are now common in his neighborhood. "You look on top this one street, at least ... seven guys with them, seven different houses."
Upslope from Hilo, ATV enthusiast Jodilyn Nicolas, 15, admits she and her friends scoot down the roads in Kaumana City to reach a network of trails near Saddle Road. She doesn't know who owns the land she has been riding on, but hopes to continue using the trails.
"If we don't ride, we basically have nothing else to do," she said. "If I couldn't ride, I don't know what I would do. I would go crazy."
Nicolas said the sport is also a family activity, with her father teaching her how to strip the vehicle down and put it back together.
Paul Maddox, president of Hawai'i Racing Association, said several groups around the Big Island are working to establish racing facilities for ATVs and dirt bikes, but for the moment the options are limited to a legal network of trails on Stainback Highway, and monthly races at the Parker Ranch rodeo arena in Waimea.
For youths who want to ride closer to home, "there's not much," Maddox said. "You've just got to know a friendly farmer with some ranch land, or trespass, which unfortunately is what most kids are doing."
Even people who are willing to open their property for ATV use are running into problems.
Tony Ferreira, 61, had a track set up for his son and friends on Ferreira's land in Kaiwiki outside Hilo but shut it down six months ago after neighbors complained. The county warned him in a letter that the track was a violation of the county zoning code and that he could be fined.
County Planning Director Chris Yuen said within the last two years his department has issued warning letters at about eight ATV courses that were set up on private land.
Yuen said ATVs are allowed for farm purposes, such as checking fence lines, but a special permit is required for landowners to set up ATV courses.
Ferreira said he understands his track was disturbing his neighbors, but since it closed youths have been riding illegally, using their ATVs to zig-zag through neighborhood macadamia orchards.
Ferreira estimates there are about 5,000 ATVs on the Big Island. He said parents need to monitor youngsters' use, take the kids where they can legally ride and get involved. If the parents pitch in, more places will be established for youngsters to ride, he said.
One group in Kona has obtained county approval to open a new motor sports facility on leased Parker Ranch land outside of Waimea, and ATV and motorcross enthusiasts used volunteer labor and $50,000 from the county to create a race track for dirt bikes and ATVs near the Hilo drag strip.
There have been setbacks for teens, however. The Hilo facility closed access to youths younger than 18 after county officials discovered that under state law, parents cannot sign liability waivers on behalf of their children for motor sports events. Without those waivers, the county will not allow youths to race.
Ferreira's son, Ian Robledo, 15, devoted his spring break from Hilo High School to working on the new Hilo race track, only to learn he wouldn't be allowed to use it.
"When I heard about it, keiki cannot ride, I was disgusted," Robledo said.
State lawmakers last week approved a bill that allows parents to sign liability waivers on behalf of children who want to race, which could lead to opening the track to Robledo and his peers.
In the meantime, police are continuing to ticket youths and adults for riding on roads. Police Major Derek Pacheco, who supervises patrol units from Hamakua to Puna, said Big Island police are cracking down on riders they catch on the roads and looking out for reckless riding.
"We're also concerned about adults carrying young children, including toddlers, on these things," Pacheco said. "That really poses a great safety risk to both of them."
Nicolas said ATV traffic has brought the police to her neighborhood, but she has yet to be ticketed. The teen said while she understands the concerns about safety and liability, "in another way, they can't blame us ... because there's really no place to ride."
She said, "For some people it's a stress relief, too." Nicolas added, "I know a lot of people who would be in anger management, who would be doing drugs, but instead ... they're out riding."
Reach Kevin Dayton at firstname.lastname@example.org.