By David A. Kelm
In the fall, one’s fancy turns to the outdoors. Hikes in the woods; biking along paths; paddling the rivers and lakeshore; hunting in the hardwoods; and, roasting marshmallows over the fire-pit. Everyday life is ripped from the pages of an Orvis or LL Bean catalogue. For many, the weekends call for jumping on a four-wheeler and taking off through the countryside enjoying the wind and sun and fresh air. The State of Illinois, however, has decided that for those that enjoy an “off-highway vehicle” they will need to pay an additional $15 per year for such simple pleasure.
Off-highway vehicles (OHV), for the uninitiated, are four-wheelers, dirt bikes, ATVs, UTVs, and other vehicles that, according to the statutory definition, include a “motor-driven recreational vehicle capable of cross-country travel on natural terrain without the benefit of a road or trail.” I imagine the definition includes those funky six-wheel tanks that operate on land and in the water that you see advertised in the back of comic books and agricultural magazines. Typically, what the new law and the coming rules from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) cover are four-wheelers, dirt bike motorcycles and utility vehicles, like a Gator.
The new, annual tax is part of IDNR’s efforts to fund operational needs, maintain current assets and construct new facilities. Primarily the $15 OHV Usage Stamp (plus a $0.50 “issuance” fee) will be used to build public-access trails for OHVs in Illinois. OHV tax will raise an estimated $700,000 to $800,000 per year and, it is hoped, will allow IDNR to capture more than a million dollars in federal funding for trail development, according to an IDNR press release.
For the most part, I think we can all agree, that the government provides necessary services such as defense, the courts and infrastructure. Such services need to be paid for by taxes and fees. In many instances, taxes and fees are assessed against the activity or mechanism that enjoys the benefit of the service. For instance, there are taxes and fees associated with driving a vehicle in order to allow governments to maintain our roads and highways. Some have argued that the new IDNR “toy tax” is similar in nature.
OHV tax, which is still in the rulemaking process and not finalized, brings with it problems that will be difficult to overcome. To begin with, the $15 annual tax will apply to golf carts, as the rule is currently written. The agency says that will be changed in the future but at the time of publication golf carts are still subject to the fee. Those that use their OHV on property where their primary residence is located are exempt from purchasing the tag. However, if you have a four-wheeler at your get-away place or on that five-acre patch you use to hunt outside of town, you’ll have to pay the piper. In other words, if you have an OHV on your property and you never take it off your property, you still have to pay every single year.
Finally, the statute allows “agents of the Department or other duly authorized police officers” to inspect any OHV at any time to make sure the OHV has the proper tag. Owning, possessing or riding a privately owned four-wheeler on privately owned ground is now cause for a Conservation Police Officer or any other police officer to enter private property to look for the appropriate tag.
Clearly, there are those that disagree with this new taxing authority and how the rules are being drafted and passed. Many OHV riders and entrepreneurs have developed trails on private land that are open to the paying public. Now, OHV riders will have to incur an additional $15 tax to head out to play at a privately owned four-wheeler park. While IDNR has indicated that they are going to seek to remove the exemption from golf carts, the Department has not exempted vehicles used by clubs and associations, vehicles used on leased hunting or recreational lands or OHVs used by outfitters.
IDNR and conservation efforts have certainly suffered in the last several years through the state’s budgetary woes. And, there are definitely readers who are going to think $15 is not something to complain about in the grand scheme of taxes and fees. However, this is a tax that will impact a great many people who are likely not to benefit from the perceived need to build public trails for motorized vehicles. Additionally, this effort provides another entrée for government to intrude in the simple pleasure of riding a four-wheeler in the great outdoors.
David A. Kelm is an attorney from Springfield with experience in environmental law.