MAZEPPA — Branden Goranson lives about a mile south of Mazeppa and often drives to town on his ATV.
But after a weekend when 42 tickets were written to ATV, side-by-side UTV and golf cart drivers in Mazeppa, Goranson wonders if he's been breaking the law taking his trips into town.
"For the last five years, I thought I was legal," he said. "But I don't know."
Goranson and many of the other roughly 150 people who packed the Mazeppa Community Center on Tuesday night wondered the same thing.
"Who writes these laws?" asked Chris Liffrig, addressing two state lawmakers — Rep. Steve Drazkowski and Sen. Mike Goggin — who were in attendance. "The rules are defined in Wisconsin. But I just stay out of this county now. You’re afraid of the hassle."
Of the tickets written during the weekend of Mazeppa Daze, 16 were citations and 26 were warning tickets, said Joe Albert, communications coordinator for the DNR’s Division of Enforcement, the agency that wrote the tickets.
“That’s more than a typical weekend but not particularly high considering the number of folks riding ATVs during Mazeppa Daze and the fact we had two officers devoted to the work detail,” Albert said.
Wabasha County Commissioner Brian Goihl said the writing of so many tickets at big community events is becoming common in Wabasha and Goodhue counties. Similar events in Goodhue, Bellechester and other towns were accompanied by a slew of tickets.
"They pulled over the Dairy Princess in Goodhue," one member of the crowd called out.
Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsch said writing tickets for people making small technical violations of the many and varied ATV regulations is something he and his deputies try to avoid.
"We have bigger fish to fry," Bartsch said. "We want people getting around to our local businesses."
One of the problems that concerned the crowd in Mazeppa was the rule concerning driving ATVs on state highways. State highways, such as Minnesota Highway 60 in Mazeppa, are off limits unless the rider is crossing the highway from one county or city road to another.
"Simply put, it is illegal to drive an ATV (Class I or II) on the state highway," Albert said. "It is legal for people operating Class II ATVs to ride on county roads, provided they follow state law and ride as far to the right-hand side of the road as possible."
Drazkowski said part of the problem is that the specific state regulations were likely written over the course of decades. The other problem is the specific regulations were written mainly to accommodate riders in northern Minnesota, where a network of trails means no one is concerned about riding on state highways.
Those regulations are a poor fit for the agricultural landscape of Southeast Minnesota, Drazkowski said.
That, several speakers noted, makes it hard for people to move in and around cities like Mazeppa or Zumbro Falls, where state highways are dominate roads, and there is no way to access county roads without riding on state highways for a few blocks or some fraction of a mile.
For example, to ride on Wabasha County Road 7, a major ATV thoroughfare near Mazeppa, drivers would need to spend 1.3 miles on Highway 60.
Drazkowski asked the people at the meeting to develop a group that might meet a few times a month over the next several months to come up with some "common sense solution on what’s going on in smaller communities."
Goggin agreed, adding, "We need to make sure we keep businesses going, keep the economy going. We’re a farm community in the southern part of the state."
Jason Klein, owner of Turbo’s Repairs in Mazeppa, organized the meeting. He echoed Goranson's concern that even if people do follow the rules that make traveling by ATV difficult, knowing those rules can be difficult.
"We're getting mixed messages on where to ride," he said. But the different jurisdictions, rules at odds with one another and conflicting state statutes make riding ATVs in any small town an exercise in gambling on getting ticketed.
"We just wake sure everyone is up to date on the rules and get some clarification on what the rules are," he said.