Most Oregonians haven’t heard of Lakeside. It’s a small town that sits just off Route 101 on the south-central coast. You can’t actually see downtown from the 101, so most people just drive straight by.
But 100 years ago, things were different.
“The elite from Hollywood would come up and stay and this was kind of their hangout,” said Dave Grover, the owner of the Lakeshore Lodge in town.
Back then, prohibition was in full swing. So celebrities like Roy Rogers and Clark Gable would fly up from Los Angeles to Lakeside, land their float planes on Tenmile Lakes or at the tiny airport, then drink and gamble to their heart’s content.
“It’s very secluded and private,” Grover said.
But Lakeside has since lost some of that glitter. The lake still attracts water skiers and anglers, but for years logging – not tourism – was the main economic engine in town.
Then in the 1960s, people started building dune buggies — precursors to modern all-terrain vehicles — so they could get out onto the rolling sands.
The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area is an enormous sand dune that runs 40 miles along the coast from Florence to Lakeside and North Bend. It’s a paradise for those who like to zoom up and down the dunes in ATVs. The towns along Route 101 in the area compete to attract enthusiasts, who tend to be relatively well-off; an ATV can cost $20,000 or more.
Towns like Coos Bay and Reedsport are now synonymous with ATVs. But not Lakeside, because even though you can get directly to the dunes from town by going under the 101 highway, which hugs the coast, ATVs have typically not been allowed on city streets. Instead, folks have had to load their ATVs onto trailers to take them onto the streets. And since you can’t see downtown Lakeside from the 101, people have generally just driven by, ATVs tied down in a trailer behind them.
But residents will vote on a ballot measure this fall that would open more of the town’s roads to any ATV driver who holds a valid driver’s license. To stop people from just driving around in ATVs instead of cars though, the measure contains a provision that ATV drivers can only use the roads that give them the most direct access to the dunes — a tough limit to enforce.
Supporters say it would be a boon to local businesses. They also point out that the town’s underpass and off-highway downtown may give them an advantage over better-known coastal towns, since the Oregon Transportation Department is unlikely to give permission for ATVs to drive on the 101 for fear of accidents.
But opponents say the measure will be disruptive and dangerous and will alter the tranquil character of their little town.
The idea to open Lakeside’s roads to ATVs has its roots in the early days of the pandemic. Businesses here were badly hit in 2020, even though ATVers were still out enjoying the dunes. So the city passed an emergency ordinance, allowing people to drive their buggies along one specific route into town, Spinreel Road. It’s only two-and-a-half miles long, but it means drivers can now get from the dunes into the shops and restaurants without having to put their buggies up on a trailer.
“They can come in and get a drink or lunch,” Grover said. “Or they can even stay in the hotel or the RV park and go directly into the dunes from the lodge.”
Grover bought Lakeshore Lodge last year, after learning the city changed the ATV laws and he thinks drivers are responding.
“I see excitement coming back into town,” he said. “When we purchased the lodge we had five employees, now we have 34 employees.”
Melissa Bethel, Lakeside city manager, said in 2020 tourism dollars amounted to $68,000. Last year that jumped to $123,000.
The new route is seen as such a success that some locals have now banded together behind ballot measure #6-198, which would open all Lakeside’s streets to ATVs, albeit with restrictions. Under ballot language that some have found confusing, drivers would only be allowed to drive ATVs along the most direct route to and from the dunes, not all over town.
James Carlisle said he will vote for the measure. While he lives in Lakeside, he doesn’t live on the official ATV route. And after 22 years in the military, he doesn’t like to break the rules. So rather than drive his ATV the few blocks from his house to the authorized route, he has to trailer it.
It would save him a lot of work if it became legal for him to drive his four-seater ATV directly to the dunes, he said. “That way I don’t have to hook up my trailer. I don’t have to load my side-by-side, drive it to the staging area, unload my side-by-side and then take off from there.”
Carlisle, who loves to take his grandkids out on the dunes, thinks Lakeside is already becoming a destination for ATV enthusiasts.
“Ever since we opened it up to that first round when we can drive in from the dunes,” Carlisle said, more ATVers have started coming into town. “They can go to the McKay’s Supermarket, they can go in and have breakfast, lunch or dinner. They can go to the antique store, the ice cream store. A lot of these businesses are actually opening up because of the route.”
But many Lakeside residents don’t like ATVs on their roads. They don’t think they’re safe and say ATVs can be as loud as a diesel truck.
Retiree Shelly Roe said there are also lots of rule-breakers, who already drive on unpermitted streets and even the railway line. And while a state driver’s license would be required to drive an ATV on the streets here, that’s not a requirement to drive an ATV on the dunes. Children as young as 10 can drive certain types of ATVs as long as they’re supervised by someone 18 or older, according to Oregon law. Insurance isn’t required for most off-road driving either. Roe argues those without driver’s licenses and insurance may not stop at the edge of town.
“On the way here, there’s a kid, maximum 12 years old riding an ATV on Eighth street,” Roe said. “So where’s his driver’s license and insurance?”
Roe also points out that residents already voted not to open up all the streets to ATVs shortly after they passed the first emergency ordinance.
“It’s like do we do the best two out of three?” Roe asked. “When do we stop voting on it?”
For now, residents here seem split between those who want the town to become a destination for ATV enthusiasts and those who want it to remain a quiet lakeside community.
The vote is scheduled for this year’s statewide election day on Nov. 8.