July 19, 2012Just when government seemed intent on taking away every freedom you enjoy, Guilford County is poised to pull a big reversal of that trend and actually allow citizens in unincorporated Guilford County a right they've never had before: the right to legally drive golf carts on the road.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes has proposed the change to the county commissioners, who seem likely to approve the move on Thursday, July 19. At that meeting, the board will hold a public hearing on, and consider approval of, an amendment to Chapter 12 of the Guilford County Code of Ordinances, which deals with "motor vehicles and traffic."
The proposed new ordinance would permit and regulate the use of golf carts on public streets. A state law passed in 2009 authorizes counties to regulate the operation of golf carts on "any public street, road, or highway where the speed limit is 35 mph or less."
Barnes said that operating golf carts on the streets is currently against the law, and he said the proposed new law comes largely as a response to the requests by residents of subdivisions who find golf carts a convenient way to get around.
"This is for Sedgefield and developments in the county where they want to use golf carts on their streets – which is illegal without this ordinance," Barnes said.
The resolution advocating the change states, "There is public interest in having a means of local travel that is cost effective and energy efficient as an alternative to the use of motor vehicles." It also states that allowing the operation of golf carts on the streets within unincorporated Guilford County is in the public interest, and, if properly regulated, will "promote the public health, safety and welfare" as well as conserve resources and protect the environment.
Commissioner Mike Winstead said he doesn't see any reason the commissioners would object to the sheriff's proposal.
"I don't see a problem," he said. "I know a lot of towns allow them, including Wrightsville Beach."
Winstead said that, since this was a law enforcement issue, he was inclined to defer to the sheriff.
Commissioner Linda Shaw also likes the idea of letting golf carts travel the county's roads.
"I think this is good," Shaw said. "Each jurisdiction is responsible for their own – so this is just in rural areas. I will support this."
Other commissioners have some questions before they vote to approve the change.
Commissioner Kirk Perkins, for instance, said he wants to make sure that the same legislation doesn't also place any additional restrictions on ATVs, tractors and other vehicles used by farmers in the county. Those vehicles are mentioned in the proposed law – only because the definition of "golf cart" explicitly excludes those vehicles – but Perkins said he wants to make sure the new law doesn't inadvertently restrict those vehicles in new ways.
However, Perkins said, he has no problem with allowing golf carts on the road. He said the move might help rural farmers since he knows that some of them use golf carts on their farms.
Commissioner Paul Gibson, when asked this week his stand on the golf cart issue, said that he wanted to hear more about the idea before deciding.
"I'm not sure yet," Gibson said. "I've never had anyone mention this before."
Commissioner Bruce Davis said he also hadn't heard anything about the golf cart issue, either pro or con.
"I haven't had any feedback from the public," Davis said in an email. "I will listen to the presentation, weigh the issue, and make a decision based on the merits. I need info from law enforcement concerning possible traffic hazards."
If the board does adopt the new freedom, there will be some restrictions; people won't be able to just go driving golf carts around on county roads willy-nilly at any time of the day or night. And not just anyone will be allowed to drive one.
For instance, convicted drunk drivers who have lost their licenses won't be allowed to get around in a golf cart. Drivers must be at least 16 years old and have a valid driver's license from North Carolina or another state – a learner's permit doesn't qualify for golf cart operation.
Also, the golf carts on the streets can't carry more than five passengers and you won't be allowed to drive a golf cart on cemetery roads and trails. If the new ordinance is adopted as proposed, those who violate any of the rules could be charged with a Class 3 misdemeanor and be fined up to $50.
Also, no souped-up golf carts are allowed. Under the new ordinance, "golf cart" is defined as "a vehicle designed and manufactured for operation on a golf course for sporting or recreational purposes and that is not capable of exceeding twenty (20) mph." However, the law will allow golf carts to whiz up and down the roads at up to 25 miles per hour, which presumably would only be able to happen when going down a steep incline or with a solid tailwind, since the vehicles are restricted to a top end capability of 20 mph.
Golf carts would be allowed on the public roads from 30 minutes after sunrise to 30 minutes before sunset, unless they're equipped with both front and rear lighting that meets certain standards.
Golf carts also couldn't be on the roads if fog, smoke or other conditions significantly reduce visibility, and they couldn't be used on any streets where the speed limit is more than 35 mph. Golf carts won't be allowed on sidewalks, walkways or jogging paths unless the driver is a law enforcement official or a county employee on county business.
Golf cart operators will have to yield the right of way to motor vehicles, and the carts will only legally be able park in places that would qualify as legal parking places for a motor vehicle.
If the board approves the measure as written, golf carts would be allowed to tow a "non-Functional golf cart" or a trailer. However, they wouldn't be able to tow "any other vehicle of any kind, including a person on roller skates, skateboard or bicycle."
Though this would be a new right for the public generally, there are some special rights regarding golf cart use on county-owned land, roads and trails that would require a written note from the sheriff or the county manager.
"Notwithstanding anything herein to the contrary," the ordinance states, "golf carts shall not be operated on property owned or leased by the County except with the express written consent of the County manager and/or the County Sheriff."