“It’s torture. It is literally torture,” said Moab native Anthony Charles. “I would rather have little sharp pieces of wood shoved under my fingernails.”

Charles was talking about the sound of off-road sport vehicles driving along the road outside his home. He lives on Millcreek Drive, which gives access to the Sand Flats Recreation Area, a destination playground for Jeeps, motorcycles and various kinds of off-highway vehicles, or OHVs.

Charles said the noise, particularly from the increasingly popular four-wheeled UTVs, has been “nonstop” since he moved into his home five months ago; he is regularly woken up during the night by the sound of engines, as is his five-month-old son.

“Honestly, I’m ready to move,” he said, in spite of the fact that he loves his new home, the first he has owned.

A lifelong Moab resident, Charles said he’s seen UTV traffic in town increase “a thousand-fold” since the machines became street-legal. He wants to see UTV users required to trailer their recreation vehicles to trailheads, or at the very least a curfew imposed to keep UTVs off city streets at night — but local officials say that’s not so easy under Utah state law.

Many voices

Charles isn’t the only resident at his wit’s end when it comes to noisy UTVs on Moab streets. Citizens have submitted comments to elected officials and penned letters to newspapers, including the Moab Sun News; some residents have started a Facebook group called “Make Moab Quiet Again.”

Becka Ann Every is a member of the Facebook group. She lives less than two blocks from Main Street and constantly sees “trains” of UTVs driving from rental company premises to trailheads. In her 25 years living in Moab, Every said she’s seen the noise and traffic increase “ten-fold,” and has gone so far as to purchase property 50 miles outside of town as a place to escape the racket.

UTV riders are Moab community members

Off-roading has been a part of Moab’s character and reputation for decades: the famous Slickrock Trail was first blazed by motorcyclists; events like the Moab Easter Jeep Safari have attracted a faithful following and the area’s red rock cliffs and towers have served as backdrops for iconic commercials featuring tough off-road vehicles.

High Point Hummer, owned by Scott and Lori McFarland, was one of the first Moab businesses to offer off-road tours and rentals over 20 years ago.

“I feel like we have the opportunity to expose people who have never been outside,” Lori McFarland said, “and we have the opportunity to help them fall in love with it so that they don’t ruin it.”

McFarland said she understands the noise complaints: she and her husband joined other locals in protesting the proposed admittance of UTVs into area national parks in 2019 and have communicated with UTV manufacturers about reducing noise.

“People in the community don’t always realize that we live here too,” said McFarland, who has been a Moab resident for 25 years.

McFarland pointed out that taxes paid by off-roading tourists help to pay for community amenities like the Moab Recreation and Aquatic Center. Short-term vehicle rentals are taxed at 9.5%, on top of other sales taxes, bringing the total tax rate for a UTV rental to 18.25%.

“That’s about $65 on every rental,” McFarland said, some of which is returned to local government coffers.

Increasing numbers

Many in Moab have observed an increase in the sheer number of UTVs operating on Moab streets. Andrea Brand is the director of Sand Flats Recreation Area, and she attests there are more UTVs driving into Sand Flats from town.

“I’ve been in the booth at least two shifts a week, and it’s nonstop—and it’s mostly UTVs, it’s mostly motorized users,” she said.

Brand reported that she observed many of those are rental UTVs on guided tours or identifiable by stickers or flags.

From March 2 through Sept. 28, traffic counters at the Sand Flats entrance booth recorded 91,983 total vehicles (including cars, campers, and other vehicles) passing through. Sand Flats Recreation Area installed new traffic counters at several of their 4x4 trailheads this spring which, though they can’t distinguish between Jeeps, Hummers, motorcycles and UTVs, give a rough snapshot of total use of each trail.

On the Hell’s Revenge trail, counters have collected data since 2019. From April 11 through Sept. 27 of last year, Hell’s Revenge counters logged 26,075 vehicles; the number for a similar timeframe this year (between March 30 and Sept. 28) is 27,252. The numbers are comparable, in spite of the pandemic shut-down this spring.

Management attempts

Local leaders have been wrestling with this issue for years after a 2008 Utah law allowed UTVs to become “street-legal” in the state, provided they comply with criteria covering registration, safety features and muffler requirements.

In an Oct. 5 Candidate Forum hosted by the Grand County League of Women Voters and broadcast on local radio station KZMU, Utah House Rep. Carl Albrecht, who serves the Moab area, asserted that Grand County or Moab City could enact and enforce noise ordinances to control the noise. Local officials contend that it’s not that simple.

“Both the city and the county already have noise ordinances—that actually is impractical to help us,” said County Attorney Christina Sloan at the Oct. 6 county commission meeting in response to Albrecht’s remarks.

Sloan said obstacles of having the right equipment, being able to isolate the noise offender and the difference in decibels at idle versus at speed all create challenges for enforcing noise ordinances on “moving targets.”

Occasionally, exasperated residents call law enforcement for help, but if there is no individual identified and/or no way to prove a code violation, police officers have limited power to take any action on noise complaints.

Moab Police Chief Bret Edge said the police station has received a slight increase in UTV noise complaints over the past couple of weeks—about five in that time, up from an average of “one or two complaints every few weeks.”

“It's clear that OHV noise is an issue for some of our citizens,” he said. “I understand their frustration and am working with our city attorney to identify potential responses.”

Moab City Attorney Laurie Simonson has been researching possible ways the city can address the problem and will present her findings to the City Council on Oct. 13 at their regular meeting. Edge will also present the challenges his department faces in responding to noise complaints. The city and the county are also scheduled to hold a joint meeting on Oct. 20 at 2 p.m. to discuss UTV noise.

Some Moab citizens like Charles are not satisfied with officials’ attempts at mitigating the noise or stopping the rude or illegal behavior of some UTV drivers.

“I’m regarding the UTVs as the second pandemic in Moab,” Charles said. “It's a rampant thing that’s running wild and there’s no medicine to stop it.”