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Morganton, NC - A crowd of about 200 people packed the Burke County Board of Commissioners' meeting room Tuesday for a long debate about the use of all-terrain vehicles and motocross bikes in the county.

The debate centered on a proposed zoning ordinance to define and regulate private tracks for ATV and motocross use. Nothing was resolved and the commissioners referred the ordinance back to the Planning Board. However, some people's passionate statements made it clear that the issue won't go away quietly.

"If you pass this ordinance," Dr. Mark McManus of 2577 Conley Road told the commissioners, "and Sheriff McDevitt comes out here, he'd better bring his ticket book. I'm not stopping."

According to Susan Berley, the county's planning director, the Code Enforcement Division in the past several months has dealt with a number of cases involving motocross tracks ("motocross" is motorcycle or ATV racing on off-road, closed-circuit tracks).

One complaint involves a track Jody Coffey built on his property at 5716 Mortimer Road in the Jonas Ridge area. Another involves Chris Miles' property at 4900 Mineral Springs Mountain Ave. near Valdese.

Coffey said he built his track for recreational use by his friends and family, including two young children. It's on two acres of his 10-acre property. He doesn't charge any money for its use, there's no formal competition and it's not used for training.

"It's pure, clean fun and excitement," he said.

However, he continued, if he has to have the property rezoned to comply with the proposed ordinance, his costs will begin with a $500 permit.

"I work for the county," said Coffey, a school resource officer employed by the Burke County Sheriff's Office. "I can't afford that."

Coffey said his track is approximately 300 yards from his neighbors, Susan and Norman Woodie of 3660 Jonas Ridge Road.

That's not far enough, said the Woodies, because the riders produce dust, fumes and, especially, noise that engulfs their property.

"How far away do you have to go for peace of mind?" Susan Woodie asked. She said, contrary to Coffey's description, the track attracts riders from a wide area and they race at all times of the day.

"It's not just a few kids," she said. "Ninety percent of the time it's adults."

Norman Woodie said he, personally, has no difficulty with kids riding a few motocross bikes for personal recreation.

"This is a track," he insisted.

And, he said, it's ruining property values. Norman estimates his property someday, when real-estate prices improve, could be worth a million dollars.

"With a racetrack beside it," he declared, "it's worth nothing — maybe $50,000."

And that sums up the essence of Tuesday's debate.

As Berley explained, the Planning Board is trying to find a definition of a private off-road track that falls somewhere along a continuum between a private land owner's recreational use of a few ATVs or motocross bikes and a commercial track such as Steel Creek's GNCC course.

Many of Tuesday's speakers felt the proposed ordinance cut too close to their own situations.

For example, the proposed ordinance limits the number of riders to no more than five at one time. Several people said they have more than that in their families, let alone their friends who also ride.

The ordinance also says a track must be on a property of no less than 10 acres. Several said they own smaller properties and have never had complaints from their neighbors.

Many insisted their sport is just a recreational hobby and shouldn't be regulated at all.

"This is about private property," said Miles. He said he moved to Burke County specifically because he wanted land on which he could build a track where his daughters, who are competitive racers, could practice.

Talking about the bikes' noise, Miles said, "Chain saws are louder. Are we going to regulate them as well. I don't think we need any more restrictions" on what people do on their private property.

Many agreed, applauding Miles and other speakers who pleaded for fewer government regulations.

But other property owners insisted they have rights, too.

Mike Puett of 9696 Highway 181 said he lives in the Jonas Ridge area because "you all know that's God's country." The noise and dust from race tracks will destroy the area's appeal and property values, he warned.

Fay McFetridge of 1184 Belvidere Lane, who lives about 1,100 feet from a track north of Morganton, said the dust and noise has diminished the value of life in their neighborhood.

"Why should anybody have to put up with it?" she asked. "Why give them legal permit to disturb the peace?"

The answer, according to several speakers, is that motocross rising is a recreational sport that a whole family, kids as well as adults, can enjoy. Several, including some professional riders based in Burke County, said they grew up racing and, as a result, never got into drugs or bad behavior. Others talked about the pleasure they get from being outdoors together.

One person who didn't sign up to speak, but who joined the discussion at the invitation of the commissioners' attorney, Redmond Dill, was Willie Bradshaw, owner of Fun Cycles in Valdese.

Bradshaw said he believes it's possible to reach compromises that respect both sides.

"For example, the noise can be controlled. In fact, it could be regulated under existing laws the state of North Carolina currently does not enforce.

Berley suggested, and the commissioners agreed, that the ordinance needs more work. After board secretary Doris Smith types up all of the comments and circulates copies to the Planning Board and the commissioners, the two groups will have a joint session at 8 a.m. Dec. 8 in the commissioners' meeting room where they will discuss how to proceed.

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