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Champion Says ATV Ban is Attack on Freedom, Sheriff uses 'Push Poll' to Survey Residents

HERNANDO – If you migrated to Florida, you probably came here for the sun, beaches, and ability to enjoy the outdoors year-round – the definition of living in paradise. Since Governor DeSantis took office, the state has become a deeper shade of red, politically speaking, and our population continues to explode with former blue-state refugees. So, when someone threatens to harness liberty in Florida, its residents do not remain silent.

Florida Law allows licensed drivers to operate All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) on dirt roads with a speed limit under 35 mph. They also allow minors to operate ATVs while under the supervision of an adult. A County's Board of Commissioners can adopt ordinances to modify that rule and that's exactly what Hernando County did after some residents in the Royal Highlands neighborhood complained about ATVs being operated on dirt roadways.

During a BOCC meeting on April 25, 2023, four of the five commissioners voted to pass an ordinance that would ban anyone from operating ATVs on county roadways under any circumstance. Commissioner Steve Champion was the only one to oppose the ban stating, "To me is it not the conservative thing to do, to restrict law-abiding citizens from abiding by the law. Instead, we should punish the people who are breaking the law."

Commissioner John Allocco says he received numerous complaints from residents living in the Royal Highlands area (Allocco's district), who say riders are stirring up dust, driving through yards, and damaging roads. However, on the day of the meeting, only two residents showed up in support of the ordinance.

Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis sent Sgt. Matt Lillibridge to urge the BOCC to pass the ordinance. Lillibridge said, "You can say 10% are causing the problems on the roadway, it's probably more of the opposite, 90% of riders on the roads are actually our troublemakers." He goes on to say, "It [ATV Ordinance] gives us another tool in our toolbox to conduct enforcement."

Champion reiterated his position before the vote, stating, "You have to remember that you are passing a law that restricts law abiding citizens from riding on the road when the state allows it."

Fast-forward one year – an election year – and Sheriff Al Nienhuis uses the agency's Facebook page to boast about his operation to crack down on anyone violating the ordinance. This did not bode well with several residents who say the ordinance is a waste of precious resources and that Nienhuis should be using them to stop violent crime instead of citing people for enjoying the outdoors.

On May 20th, Sheriff Nienhuis sent an email to the BOCC, advising them of a survey they would be sending to 13,000 registered voters who live in the northwest corner of Hernando County. Nienhuis also posted notice of the survey on the agency's Facebook page but disabled comments to prevent public criticism.

Once residents began receiving the survey, R News learned that the QR code attached to the form was not functioning properly and prompted recipients to pay a license fee to continue. It's not known how quickly the issue was resolved or how many people disposed of the survey after believing there was a charge.

During a BOCC meeting last Tuesday, Commissioner Champion raised the issue again and called for a vote to repeal the ATV ordinance. This time, several Royal Highlands residents attended the meeting and pled with the board to do away with the ban.

Royal Highlands resident Scott Mathieu said, "I'm kind of grateful for this onerous legislation, it has spawned a movement of 1500 registered committed voters. It's galvanized our community and I stand for fundamental change." Mathieu runs a Facebook page called ATV riding is not a crime.

Marty Wilson said, "You can't start taking freedoms away, that is not America. There are other options than banning. That's a liberal or Democrat view – ban." Wilson went on to say. "Also, I don't understand these meetings at 9:00 am. All your employees are here, not the public."

Sean Roden stated, "We have our sheriff out there enforcing this law and yet he's complaining all the time that he's short on deputies. Pasco allows it Citrus allows it, all these other counties allow it. What's the reason for going again the state with they allow it?"

Champion stood firm in calling for the ordinance to be reversed regardless of the Sheriff's survey. Champion says a referendum should be offered to every voter in the county during the upcoming election, instead of using an unreliable survey. "I do not trust the data, to be honest," said Champion.

Matthieu claims Nienhuis' survey is not a genuine attempt at acquiring honest opinions; rather, it is a "Push Poll," a method used by politicians to influence voters into agreeing with their position.

Despite concerns over the accuracy of the survey, the other four commissioners said they would wait to see the results before making a decision.

Following the BOCC meeting, candidate for Sheriff Joe Puglia and candidate for Commissioner Marvin Baynham visited Mathieu at his home, along with several other residents fighting the ATV ban. Puglia told the group, "If I were in his [Nienhuis] position today, I can tell you that this would be the least of my worries. Now if you get a phone call, a 911 call, you've got to investigate something, by all means, go do it. But as far as putting up a helicopter; I can tell you it costs about $1,400 per hour to run that helicopter to deal with this issue." Nienhuis has deployed several UTVs, drones, and the agency's air unit to combat ATV riding.

Baynham encouraged the group to get out and vote if they wanted issues like this to be less controlled by a political agenda. Baynham, who is running against Commissioner Allocco, has been going door to door in an effort to reach voters in his district, hoping to convince them that it is time for change.

According to those who attended Matthieu's meeting, neither Sheriff Nienhuis nor Commissioner Allocco offered to hold a local forum or meet personally with residents prior to deciding on passing an ordinance. They were very surprised that Puglia and Baynham took the time to meet with a small group of voters and said it would make a difference on who they voted for come this fall.

Commissioners Allocco, Campbell, Hawkins, and Narverud have not responded to our numerous attempts for comment regarding the ordinance.

Sheriff Al Nienhuis responded to our question regarding the BOCC asserting that he supported the ordinance, stating, "That was probably in reference to addressing the question as to how the Sheriff's Office could address the numerous complaints of ATVs riding in the neighborhood and/or ATVs driving on dirt roads." Nienhuis did not respond when we asked why he preferred to dedicate so many resources to the ATV operation rather than the increasing violent crime in Spring Hill.

Nienhuis has taken an aggressive stance against anyone criticizing his ATV enforcement on social media, especially when they question his lack of attention or acknowledgment of violent crime. Hundreds of citizens have been blocked or given stern warnings by Nienhuis' social media manager Denise Moloney not to make critical comments on the agency's page. Moloney has also been known to retaliate against critics by running background checks on an individual and then posting past arrests or citations in the comments.

The results of the Sheriff's survey are due to be released later this week. Once commissioners have had time to review the results, a date will be set to vote on whether to remove or retain the current ordinance.


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