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Cracking down on intrusive ATVs; Riders' trespassing, farm damage, recklessness prompt extra patrols in Wheatfield

Town leaders and emergency responders have grown tired of ATV riders who trespass on private property, damage farmland and occasionally need to be rescued because of their reckless behavior.

Now they're going to spend some money to try to solve the problem.

Wheatfield has agreed to hire the Niagara County Sheriff's Office to add extra off-road patrols in areas of the town where riders of all-terrain vehicles have been causing problems. The cost will be $7,000.

Last weekend, Deputy James D. Lucas, off-road patrol coordinator for the Sheriff's Office, began the first designated ATV patrols in the Wheatfield area.

Lucas said his unit regularly patrols the entire county, including Wheatfield, but will now have additional patrols in the town intermittently throughout the summer.

"For the most part, the public has welcomed us," Lucas said. "The law-abiding citizens are the ones who are welcoming us, because they are doing what they are supposed to be doing."

Supervisor Robert B. Cliffe said that Wheatfield had been getting two enforcement trips a year from the off-road patrol but decided that more were needed. Cliffe said he hopes that tickets issued to ATV riders will help pay for these additional patrols.

Cliffe, a former town justice, said tickets for trespassing are typically for $75 but can be for $100 or more if there are other violations.

Lucas said riders of ATVs and other off-road vehicles have to stay on their own property or be part of a club that has permission to ride on a property. This information, he said, is often news to riders.

"A lot of people aren't familiar with ATV laws at all," Lucas said.

"We don't have problems with the legal drivers, who drive along designated areas, but the problem is when they come off of these areas -- like farmers' fields, people's backyards or Mario Park, where they are out doing doughnuts," Cliffe said.

He said the biggest problem area is in "Doe's Hill," an undeveloped 300-acre site off of Liberty Drive behind The Summit mall.

Forest City Land Group of Cleveland, which owns the property, also is trying to stop trespassers, ticketing people who ride there or come on the property for fishing in the man-made lake.

Neil F. Witkowski, 22, of North Tonawanda, was ticketed May 8 by deputies. He told them, "I have been coming here for years," but Forest City Land Group has demanded pursuing charges against anyone who trespasses on the site, according to deputies.

Four-wheelers and dirt-bikers love the Doe's Hill area because of its hilliness, Cliffe said, but it can be dangerous, and Forest City doesn't want the potential liability.

"It's sort of a bog in there, and every single year, the Fire Department goes in there to pull somebody out. Every single year, somebody gets hurt and has to be taken to the hospital," Cliffe said. "Also, the Fire Department doesn't appreciate being called out to take care of people who are illegally on private property."

But it's not just the nuisance that some ATV riders cause; Lucas noted that there were more than 300 fatalities linked to ATVs in New York State in 2010.

"That's pretty high," Lucas said. "We are trying to educate the public about what the laws are."

In a recent report of an ATV accident in Newfane, two 8-year-olds were riding near a roadway and turned over, resulted in an injury to the one who was driving. Parents were ticketed.

"Parents are just sending their kids out on ATVs. But between the ages of 10 to 15, kids must be supervised by adults, unless they have attended an ATV safety course" approved by the state Department of Motor Vehicles, Lucas said. "The public is not even aware of that."

The increased patrolling is being welcomed by some ATV riders.

"We love the police. It gets rid of all the riffraff, the renegades who are not following all the rules," said William M. Park, president of the Tri-County Trail Riders in Pendleton. "We are trying to make it a fun sport."

Park said that when his group's members see someone without a helmet or a license on their trails, they contact the police themselves.

He said his group has almost 300 members who use designated trails and permission from landowners, which allows access to club members. Members must join the club to use such trails.

"Tri-County is doing it the right way, and it is working out very well," Park said.

"We've teamed up with the Town of Pendleton to use their hiking path [an approximately 17-mile trail that goes through Pendleton from Lockport to Niagara Falls Boulevard], and the town has made up signs to go on the trail that state the rules and regulations."

Although Wheatfield is a far more developed town than it was 15 years ago, the town is still 60 to 70 percent farmland, and ATVs are causing expensive damage to both farmland and parks, where they ruin playing fields.

"Farmers don't mind if they stay in the edges of a field, but [these drivers] have a beer or two and then are doing doughnuts or figure eights in the back of the field," Cliffe said.

"They don't think they are hurting anything, but it destroys the crops and either forces the farmer to do extra work or not have a crop in that area. They are destroying the farmer's livelihood. They are also bothering people, riding through yards and destroying the quiet enjoyment of homeowners."

Cliffe said that unlike snowmobiles, ATVs are riding on regular ground and tearing up property.

"The law said ATVs must have explicit permission from the homeowner to ride on the property. You can't ride down the side of the road, or the railroad tracks or the power lines property, because of the damage and liability, but that is where they all ride," Cliffe said.

The supervisor said that some advocates are trying to create areas for ATVs to ride but that it is still an idea in progress.

"We will do whatever we can to cut down on illegal use," Cliffe said of off-road trespassing. "We suspect people will realize that Wheatfield is not the place to ride their ATVs."

He said that after the patrols are under way, they plan to re-evaluate the expenditure and see if they are making a difference and if they need to be continued.

"We hope through more enforcement, we will get the quiet enjoyment for the people who are being bothered," Cliffe said, "maybe getting fines to pay for this and cut down on damage for farmers."