The Thursday before Memorial Day — May 22 — dawned as Thursdays before Memorial Day typically dawn in Huntsville. The town was gearing up for its biggest weekend of the year. Trucks pulling toy haulers and trailers loaded with ATVs had been rolling into town all week, but Thursday brought a big increase in that traffic.
Memorial Day weekends have been big in Huntsville since Brimstone Recreation, which manages 20,000 acres of ATV trails in the mountains just outside of town, began presenting the “White Knuckle Event.” The three-day event is billed as “the Woodstock of ATV events” and mixes off-road riding and country music. This year’s festival was headlined by Nashville heartthrobs Cole Swindell and Chase Rice.
Meanwhile, just miles away, on the same road, Trails End Campground hosts its own event, similar in nature to White Knuckle. This year, country music icons Craig Morgan and Sammy Kershaw were the big draws.
Combined, there are more than 10,000 visitors in town at any given point between Friday a.m. and the morning of Memorial Day. For businesses along the S.R. 63 corridor, Memorial Day weekend is their biggest sales weekend of the year — with Labor Day weekend, which features similar ATV events, not far behind. At the Grand Vista, Huntsville’s only motel, rooms are booked well in advance. Manager David Terry said this year that all his rooms had been reserved “for months” by the time the festival weekend arrived.
For the county seat of a county that has held the state’s highest unemployment rate for four years running, it is kind of a big deal. Such a big deal, in fact, that the town’s board of aldermen passed an ordinance opening city streets to ATV traffic. The legality of that law has been disputed, but it is still on the books and has not been formally challenged.
For the first six years of the festivals, there was an unwritten agreement of sorts between local officials and law enforcement. Call it a gentlemen’s agreement: for four days out of the year, ATV riders could break state law by driving their rigs along the highway and other streets. After all, there is not much parking in “downtown” Huntsville. Riders were in the habit of driving their machines from the hotel, five minutes away from the turn-off to River Road, to the event area. Those who rode recklessly or who were seen drinking-and-driving would be ticketed or arrested, but for the most part, riders were given a free pass.
Technically, it was law-breaking, but proponents of the ATV events say it isn’t unlike the breaks given by law enforcement — the gentlemen’s agreements — in places like Hazard, Ky., and towns surrounding the Hatfield-McCoy trail system in West Virginia during events in those locations.
Last year, everything changed. For reasons that are not exactly clear, though often debated, the Tennessee Highway Patrol descended on Huntsville during the Memorial Day weekend, issuing citations to every ATV spotted on the state highway or on the right-of-way of the roadway. That THP presence was repeated during the Labor Day weekend.
So, this year, everyone with a stake in the ATV events — both those who frown on the THP’s presence and those who are irritated by the increase in ATV traffic and welcome the intervention by authorities — waited with baited breath for the lawmen to arrive in town.
Thursday, as the streets grew increasingly crowded with traffic, the troopers were nowhere to be seen. But, by Friday morning, the official start of the festivals, THP arrived en force, with at least a dozen units on hand at times. In addition, a road block was established on S.R. 63 in neighboring Campbell County, intercepting traffic bound for Huntsville from Interstate 75.
At the road block, troopers checked licenses, seat belt law compliance and proof of insurance. In Huntsville, troopers stopped any ATV spotted on the highway, as well as several other motorists who were seen driving without seat belts; after all, the THP had mounted a statewide “Click It or Ticket” campaign centered around that travel weekend.
Huntsville officials had anticipated the presence of troopers and attempted to prepare for them by pleading with the Tennessee Department of Transportation to allow a lane of S.R. 63 — which is four lanes wide through town — to be cordoned off and designated as an ATV lane.
In a letter to Mayor George Potter, TDOT Incident Management Coordinator Mark Dykes said that the agency could not formally close a lane of the highway, but seemed to indicate that local leaders were free to do so.
“The Department does not issue Traffic Control permits for lane closures associated with special events,” Dykes wrote. “Any lane closures in conjunction with the special event would need to be approved, coordinated and implemented on a local level by the Town of Huntsville with the inclusion of all appropriate local agencies.”
Potter made plans to do just that. He had TDOT deliver digital signs. He sent a town truck to pick up the first 100 of 500 construction barrels that would be used to cordon off a lane of the highway.
“It was gonna be costly to the town,” he said.
Ultimately, though, the lane closure plan was nixed. Turns out, according to more than one person who spoke with knowledge of the event, THP’s interpretation of state law was that ATV traffic on the highway would still violate state law, even with the construction barrels in place.
For local officials, it was back to square one.
Once THP arrived, enforcement of the law was swift. In all, a total of 85 citations were issued, according to numbers obtained from the Scott County Circuit Court Clerk’s office.
Businesses along the S.R. 63 corridor said they felt the bite almost immediately.
At Fireside Restaurant, a mom-and-pop type of establishment featuring homestyle cooking, there was such an influx of customers on the Thursday before the event started that additional food was ordered. By the time the trucks arrived, however, the THP crackdown had begun. And the supply of diners began to dry up.
“When they (THP) show up, I might as well go home,” said Fireside owner Donnie Sexton. “Something needs to be done.”
Another restaurant did go home, according to town officials. After scheduling extra employees to work the weekend shift in anticipation of larger-than-usual crowds, the restaurant actually closed early because of a lack of business.
David Daugherty, owner of Firehouse Pizza in Huntsville, said his store typically stays open late during the event weekends — “we were busy in the dining room from open to close,” Daugherty said. This year, Daugherty ordered extra food and scheduled more people, as well as preparing to stay open an hour longer than usual. And then?
“Nobody showed up,” Daugherty said.
Up and down S.R. 63, where Memorial Day weekends once saw lines of ATVs at gas pumps of the convenience stores, and hungry patrons waiting for an available table at restaurants, the once vibrant festival-weekend business community was just a shadow of Memorial Day weekends past as the holiday came and went. Employees lost hours. Owners lost profits. Tax dollars went unspent.
And while being careful to point out that they respect THP for doing its job, town officials say the bottom line is that the local economy suffered.
It is an impact that reverberates in a community where there has been much talk lately about establishing a tourism destination for the outdoors-minded.
Wendy Buttram, town recorder in Huntsville, tells of a visitor from “up north,” she can’t remember exactly which state, who sent an email to her desk when he arrived back home. “I won’t be back unless I receive an apology from the Town of Huntsville,” he wrote.
“But how can we apologize?” Buttram says. “We had nothing to do with it.
That visitor is far from alone. Todd Shields drove a day to get to Brimstone. He loved it. Just one complaint: “One thing that would make it better is if the law dogs would allow ATV travel similar to West Virginia,” he said.
Mark Love, founder and president of Brimstone, tells of a rider from Arkansas who called to say he would not be back.
From tourism promoters to business owners to town officials, folks in Huntsville were left fuming over the THP crackdown. It is a sticky subject, one that many are hesitant to sound off on. Three THP troopers make their homes in Scott County, another has strong family ties to the community, and the late Sgt. Brian Boshears was a beloved member of the community. Most are hesitant to avoid stepping on the toes of the troopers, insisting that the troopers are only doing their jobs while their beef is with whoever is ordering the crackdown from higher up the ladder.
“It’s a shame that 12 THP troopers were here,” Mayor Potter said Thursday. “I don’t know why this is happening. But something’s wrong. You don’t see them bothering riders in other places like that.”
The mayor has also heard the complaints from business owners.
“I had one restaurant owner ask me yesterday, ‘George, what are we going to do? They’re killing us,’” Potter said.
To a man, every member of the town’s board of mayor and aldermen expressed displeasure with the THP’s actions. The group of five men do not often agree, but on this issue they are united.
“It’s killing businesses here,” alderman Steve Asberry said.
Alderman Paul Lay, a retired U.S. Army National Guard veteran who served in Iraq, said that the town is “being targeted” by whoever is giving orders to THP troopers.
That statement might seem extreme, but it is not a sentiment that has gone unnoticed. To some folks around Huntsville, it is the only explanation that makes sense.
“Something funny is going on at the state level and I smell a rat,” says Danny Phillips, an ATV enthusiast who is a staple at the holiday weekend events. “There was an event going on at the Ride Royal Blue campground (in neighboring Campbell County), and no THP present. Windrock (in neighboring Anderson County) had a big crowd. No THP. Why is Huntsville being singled out?”
Saying he had kept quiet for as long as he could keep quiet, Potter on Thursday called on local law enforcement to help out.
“Obeying the law and enforcing the law is one thing, but harassment is another,” Potter said. “I believe we’re being harassed.”
His allegation drew a mutter of “Yes” from one alderman, while another nodded his head in agreement.
One alderman told stories of watching from across the street as troopers positioned themselves at the turnoff from S.R. 63 onto the courthouse square at Brimstone headquarters.
“One of them actually stood there, hiding behind cars (in the parking lot of the Scott County Office Building),” he said. “When ATVs would cross the street, he would jump out and stop them. He wrote one ticket after another.”
By “crossing the street,” the alderman was referring to ATVs pulling out from Court Street and crossing to the parking lot at Thompson’s Kawasaki on the other side of the street. The ATV shop lends its parking lot to festival attendees and is a popular parking area for riders. In Tennessee, ATVs are permitted to cross the highway, so long as they do it at a 90-degree angle.
However, state law does stipulate that the crossings must be designated by TDOT or local government authorities. To everyone’s knowledge, no such designation had been made at the Court Street crossing.
The mayor, meanwhile, told of a local resident who had gone to efforts to make his side-by-side ATV “street legal.” In Tennessee, ATVs can qualify as low-speed vehicles that are legal for any road with a posted speed limit of 45 mph or less — S.R. 63 is one of those — so long as they are insured and are equipped with headlights, brake lights, turn signals and a wind shield.
“He told me that he was legal. I said, ‘They’ll stop you,’” Potter said. “He said, ‘They can’t stop me, I’m legal.’ I said, ‘They’ll stop you.’ I told him to go on and I would follow him to see if they stopped him. Sure enough, they stopped him.”
The man was issued a citation, Potter said. Turns out, the trooper found an issue with his windshield, which was deemed to not meet specifications.
“Tell me that’s not harassment,” says someone listening to the mayor’s conversation.
Love, whose livelihood is ATVs, won’t go so far as to agree to that, but he does speak of his OEM reps who were arriving into town for the weekend festival. “Original equipment manufacturer,” the OEMs are the biggest of the biggest in the ATV industry; the type of people festival organizers love to have at their events. They rolled into town Memorial Day weekend in trucks pulling trailers.
“They were telling stories about how they were stopped by THP as soon as they got off the interstate, so their licenses and stuff could be checked,” Love said.
Not everyone agrees that THP’s enforcement efforts are unwelcome, of course. A number of social media conversations centered around the topic tend to result in heated discussions — some welcoming the THP’s presence and some frowning on it. Proponents of strict enforcement say that the highway through Huntsville is safer as a result. And, they say, riders are learning to obey the law. Indeed, the numbers show that while 85 citations were written this year, that number was down more than two-thirds from last year’s Memorial Day weekend events.
On the other side of the argument, though, opponents of enforcement say that it is that absence of ATV riders from the business areas of Huntsville that is hurting commerce the most.
Many agree that it is time for something to be done, saying that there is common ground that can be achieved without allowing ATVs free reign over the highways. The problem is, what? As much as it hurts businesses and cramps the style of local officials, the law is the law, and clearly states that ATV operation on state roadways is prohibited.
Potter said that state Sen. Ken Yager, a Harriman Republican who represents Huntsville in Nashville, has offered his assistance. The problem is that Yager has no authority to dictate anything to THP. Nor can he order a lane of traffic closed.
And so long as THP maintains that ATV lane designations are not in compliance with the law, TDOT can be of no assistance.
That leaves only two options — at least options that are readily apparent: either Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has to get involved, or a new law has to be written.
The latter is the most realistic scenario, but would take months to accomplish — the state legislature does not reconvene until January 2015 — and there is no guarantee that it would pass, though Potter says he is confident that Huntsville’s representatives in the legislature will attempt to pass a new law. As for the former, the governor is powerless to change the law himself. He could, of course, order an end to THP’s crackdown in Huntsville; order a return to the “gentlemen’s agreements” of years past. And, in a county that has long had the state’s highest unemployment rate, a county that is making efforts to pull itself up by its bootstraps, some ask, why not?
The problem there, others say, is what happens when there is an accident? What happens when someone is killed?
“Ultimately, the Town of Huntsville is going to wind up being responsible if and when that happens,” one judicial official said.
Opponents of the THP crackdown point out that in the years leading up to the crackdown, there was no one killed on the highways; until last year, when one person was killed on an ATV trail and another was killed on a secondary street, there had been no fatalities during the festivals. And, they point out, they are fine with reckless drivers or drivers who are under the influence being ticketed or arrested. They just ask for a little leeway, they say — the same leeway that is shown in places like West Virginia and Kentucky.
I realize (the THP) is just doing their job,” Daugherty said. “But we have already closed two businesses due to the economy here. Hopefully something can be done."