In recent weeks, Moab citizens have been begging elected officials for action to address noise from UTVs on city streets, and local leaders are listening, though their options are limited by state code. City Attorney Laurie Simonson, along with Moab City Police Chief Bret Edge, analyzed the state law that allows UTVs on public streets and researched legal avenues the city can take to try to reduce the resulting noise. They came up with five possibilities, but none of them offer an easy fix.

“I’m going to be straight up with you right now,” Simonson told the council as she began her presentation at their regular Oct. 13 meeting. “The options that you have to address the noise issue are not ideal.”

Mounting frustration

This isn’t the region’s first go-around with the issue of increased UTV noise; residents and leaders have been grappling with it for years. But with tourist season ramping up this fall after a COVID-19-caused lull this spring, residents reported reaching a breaking point. Fifty-eight comments were submitted to the city council ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.

Seven comments, from a mix of residents and out-of-town UTV advocates, were submitted in defense of the UTV community, asking city officials not to villify the user group. Fifty-one comments, almost all from residents, were submitted in support of some or all of the city’s proposals to mitigate noise, offering other policy and enforcement suggestions to address the issue, and detailing the stress, loss of sleep, and frustration they’ve experienced due to increased noise on city streets.

“Citizens are clear that they’re weary of the noise,” Simonson said. “Some longtime residents are thinking of moving away from the city because of the noise. It’s affecting their sleep... it’s causing stress and anxiety. In descriptions of the situation, people are calling it maddening, saying it’s intolerable, it’s unbearable.”

One resident described trying to read a story to his toddler on their porch.

“We couldn’t get through a 12-page book about a bunny without going inside,” the father wrote, ending his comment with the directive, “Do something!!!!!”

The options

Simonson listed five possible approaches the city could use to try to mitigate street noise, hedging the list with a reminder that local law cannot conflict with state law.

“Essentially, we cannot put any restrictions on OHVs in the city of Moab that we don’t put on all vehicles,” she explained.

She also noted that standard, operating mufflers are already required on street-legal vehicles and that the city already has general noise ordinances in place.

The first suggestion offered was investing in a noise metering device and using it to set up “checkpoints,” similar to DUI checkpoints, to find and cite noise violators. This option poses “logistic and financial challenges,” said Edge, explaining that each metering device would cost upwards of $3,000, and at least two would be needed; the staff hours would also be a significant cost.

City Manager Joel Linares also clarified that such a checkpoint would not be a significant source of revenue for the city; the fine for noise violations is around $100.

A second option, which was widely unpopular with citizen commenters, was to designate suggested UTV routes through town. This solution would not help people who already live on or near the proposed designated routes and there would be no way to compel compliance.

The third option involves regulating UTV rental companies by requiring noise mitigation as a condition of granting a business license. Simonson noted, however, that this approach would not address privately-owned machines which may be modified.

Dave Hellman, owner of local company Xtreme 4x4 Tours and also a private owner of side-by-side UTVs, said he believes privately-owned machines are more of a problem.

“All the tour companies out there—none of them run aftermarket exhausts,” he told the council via Zoom at their Tuesday night meeting.

Hellman suggested a checkpoint that examines mufflers and exhausts to see that they meet state standards, rather than a decibel-metering checkpoint.

A moratorium on permitting new UTV rental companies was also a possible step, said Simonson.

The final suggested approach Simonson brought forward was lobbying the state legislature to allow Moab to opt out of the state law.

There was some discussion of creating a local ordinance specific to UTVs in defiance of state law, as a way of making a stand. Councilmembers noted that other Utah communities have UTV speed limits and curfews in place even though they technically violate state code.

Bud Bruening, president of the nonprofit UTV Utah, offered a collaborative approach in a comment he submitted to the city council. “We understand the issue Moab is faced with. We want to help,” he wrote.

He said the group supported lowering the speed limit for UTVs on residential roads and posting “preferred routes” for UTVs through town, though lowering the speed limit only for UTVs would amount to singling out one specific type of vehicle, which is not allowed under state law. He also pledged that UTV Utah would be willing to help fund signs and public education to support these policies.

Mayor Niehaus told the council she had participated in a phone conversation for over two hours with UTV advocates Ben Burr, policy director for the Idaho-based motorized access advocacy group Blue Ribbon Coalition, and Bruening. The three discussed strategies for working together to address the noise. She did not report any specific ideas produced during the conversation.

City Manager Joel Linares said he “found it laughable” that state legislators put the responsibility of addressing UTV noise on local governments.

“Everything that was in our tool bag that was easy to enforce, and easy to get convictions, and easy to hold up in court, they took away from us,” Linares said. “You can’t set your own speed limits, you can’t set designated routes, you can’t set curfews. Anything that we could have just done to easily solve this problem, they said, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’”

Simonson agreed that the tools available are not adequate to the task.

“None of these solutions are the mute button that the city is looking for,” she conceded. “But I think that any number of these options shows that you want to address this issue. We’re all on the same page, we want to solve this problem—it’s just the tools we have aren’t great.”