Golf cart zones headed for county approval

Island County may soon join Coupeville and other communities across the state in allowing golf carts on public roads.

Island County may soon join Coupeville and other communities across the state in allowing golf carts on public roads.

A majority of Island County commissioners agreed this week to move forward with a public hearing on draft regulations that would provide a framework for communities to establish golf-cart zones in rural areas. The meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 24, in the Commissioners Hearing Room in Coupeville.

As of now, Commissioner Helen Price Johnson and Commissioner Aubrey Vaughan have both voiced support for the proposal, while Commissioner Jill Johnson is undecided.

“We are hopeful that will remain the status quo,” said Tom Cahill, a Beverly Beach resident and one of about 121 people who have petitioned the board to adopt such rules.

The Beverly Beach community has worked on the proposal for more than four years, an effort that resulted in the passage of key legislation in Olympia and paved the way for the adoption of similar rules in Langley, Coupeville and a handful of other municipalities across Washington.

According to Cahill, the community effort began with one resident. The man was battling cancer and used a golf cart to get to community functions. It was easier and more comfortable than trying to get into his SUV, Cahill said. The public functions were doing him well, but the habit was interrupted when a sheriff’s deputy arrived and warned that golf carts are not legally allowed on public roads.

“Some of us in the community decided that just didn’t make sense,” Cahill said.

Over the next four years, former state senator Mary Margaret Haugen helped push through a bill (2010) that allowed counties and cities to adopt regulations for their use. While Coupeville and Langley both took advantage of the legislation, Island County was slower to move forward. Safety concerns and legal issues delayed action until recently when the discussion was raised again.

Draft rules were penned that outline how such zones would be established and regulated. To start, only areas with speed limits 25 mph or less would qualify.

“It won’t apply everywhere,” said Bill Oakes, director of Island County Public Works. “There will be areas where they don’t meet the speed limit requirements. The idea is to keep them [golf carts] out of high-volume and high-traffic areas.”

Communities that do qualify would then need to prove its support with a petition signed by 51 percent of property owners. Property frontage is a factor as well; people with the most land have the most say.

“It’s not a one-to-one vote,” said Oakes, in a work session with the commissioners on Wednesday. “If you have more frontage, that signature is more valuable on a petition.”

“So, if you have three people in a neighborhood, you could have one decider,” Commissioner Jill Johnson responded.

According to Oakes, the same process is used for road vacations and is a calculation method commonly used by public works departments.

Johnson voiced concerns about legal liability and safety as well. Oakes acknowledged that the county would likely assume some liability by lawfully allowing golf carts on public roads. As for safety, the topic has long been an issue, and initial concerns voiced by island police concerned the state’s lack of requirements for standard vehicles lights — headlights, turn signals, etc. — and were cause for the initial delay.

The problem was enough of a headache that supporters successfully lobbied legislative District 10 Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, to introduce a new bill that would allow counties greater flexibility in adding its own requirements. The legislation moved out of the House of Representatives swiftly with broad support but died in the Senate.

Smith said this week that later meetings with county officials alleviated legal fears about county’s independently mandating lights on golf carts, and the proposal now includes just such requirements. Golf carts would need to have all the lights currently equipped on cars, under the draft rules.

Smith said having an additional transportation alternative for the public is a positive, and the environmental benefits are clear. She remains hopeful the measure will move forward.

“To me, it makes perfect sense,” Smith said.

In an interview following Wednesday’s meeting, Johnson said she’s still on the fence about whether to support the golf-cart ordinance. She still has concerns about liability, and whether this is “something we need to be doing,” but that her main fear is one of safety.

“I’m not sure I’m voting ‘No’ on this, I’m just not sure I’m voting ‘Yes,’” Johnson said.

Under the existing regulations, users would not be required to have a driver’s license, but do need to be 16, and have completed a drivers safety course or have “past driving experience,” according to Oakes.

Langley Police Chief Dave Marks said he had concerns when the city adopted its ordinance several years ago, such as people driving them while intoxicated because they believe, “They aren’t really cars,” but it’s proved a non issue.

“I thought at first we’d have problems, but it’s worked out pretty well,” Marks said.

Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard reported similar success, that the town has yet to experience any real headaches.

Both municipalities require users to acquire a license at City Hall. So far, they’ve had few takers: two in Langley and just one in Coupeville. Oakes said the county’s proposal carries no such requirement.

Communities seeking to establish zones would be required to pay several fees. The application is $150, signs marking zone boundaries are $100 each and maintenance of each sign would carry an annual $50 fee, Oakes said.

The meeting later this month would include three votes by the board: one for the regulations, one for the fees and another concerning the Beverly Beach community’s request to establish a golf cart zone.