After outcry and public comment from Grand County residents about noise from off-highway vehicles in residential neighborhoods, on Oct. 20 the Grand County Commission met with the Moab City Council.
At the meeting, speed limits for OHVs were passed for both city and county, as well as a moratorium on new UTV guide and rental businesses and special event permits for UTV events.
Regardless of their votes on the resolutions at hand, elected officials emphasized their solidarity with local business owners and with residents who own and enjoy UTVs.
County Commission Chair Mary McGann assured participants and the public that it was “not the purpose of this meeting, to ban UTVs or ATVs.”
Instead, she said, “It’s the first step in trying to deal with the excessive noise a number of these machines create.”
On social media and in public comment in recent weeks, some UTV users raised complaints that such policies were “discriminatory” and therefore illegal.
“Discrimination has a specific legal meaning,” Moab City Attorney Laurie Simonson explained. “Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects certain categories such as race, national origin, gender. Being a UTV or ATV user is not [a] protected category. Cities are allowed to treat different groups differently based upon their impact to a community, and a disproportional impact on the community is a rational basis by which a city can, or a county can, regulate.”
The first resolution passed at Tuesday’s meeting was to “formally initiate proceedings” to amend city and county land use codes, and to impose a moratorium on new business licenses for guiding UTV tours or private UTV rentals, as well as special event permits for UTV-centered events. The moratorium does not affect existing businesses.
The moratorium was passed by the Moab City Council by a vote of 4-1, with Tawny Knuteson-Boyd in opposition. The resolution passed Grand County Commission 5-1, with Commissioner Curtis Wells voting in opposition and Commissioner Rory Paxman abstaining from the vote as he is employed by a business that rents UTVs.
“It seems like this is just going the wrong direction...going after the people that are on our side and allies, that are trying to help us keep the noise down,” Paxman said, expressing concerns that the moratorium would alienate local UTV advocates.
Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan noted that the moratorium protects existing UTV business owners.
Elected officials also discussed the importance of collaborating with neighboring San Juan County to avoid new UTV businesses simply moving across the county line and continuing to impact Grand County residents.
The land use code amendments will be discussed and voted on in future meetings.
Both the city and county also passed OHV-specific speed limits at the joint meeting. On city streets, the legal OHV speed limit will be 15 miles per hour; on county roads, it will be 10 miles lower than posted speed limits. The limits will take effect once posted and will exclude motorcycles.
The county passed the measure by a vote of 4-2, with commissioners Jaylyn Hawks and Wells in opposition. Paxman recused himself.
“To be behind someone that’s going 20 miles an hour in a 30 mile per hour zone is a mental health issue thing in and of itself,” Hawks said in explanation of her opposition to the reduced speed limits.
The Moab City Council passed the reduced speed limits 4-1. Councilmember Knuteson-Boyd again voted in opposition.
Enforcing noise ordinances
Many residents have complained about the noise coming from UTVs, and both the city and the county have existing noise ordinances on the books. Grand County prohibits excessive noise, which it defines as 85 decibels or louder, and prohibits “loud” noise during night hours, defined as noise which annoys or disturbs a person with normal sensitivities.
The city ordinance has similar language, and considers noise at 65 decibels or louder to be “excessive and unusually loud.”
The difficulty, according to officials, comes with legally establishing noise levels coming from a moving object.
“There’s a misconception that it is as simple as pointing some type of a device at a moving vehicle down the road and being able to issue a citation off of that,” Simonson said.
Moab Police Chief Bret Edge said the department would need to implement noise checkpoints, purchase thousands of dollars worth of equipment, and add more staff hours than the department can realistically devote to the issue.
However, some local leaders, including City Councilmember Mike Duncan, have contested that effective noise monitoring does not need to be as complex or expensive as Edge claims. Duncan is a retired engineer and has experimented with layperson noise monitoring devices and techniques.
City Manager Joel Linares responded that noise violations must be provable in court and that Duncan’s techniques would not meet prosecution standards.
One possible tool to resolve the issue could be the SAE J1287 standard, a protocol created by global engineering association SAE International to determine the exhaust sound pressure levels of motorcycles under standardized conditions. The protocols have been expanded to include methods for measuring noise from other vehicles such as ATVs and snowmobiles.
Appealing to legislators, UTV industry
Moab City Mayor Emily Niehaus said that she was no longer in support of certain measures she had previously considered, including designating specific OHV routes through town and implementing curfews.
Instead, Niehaus proposed a permit system that would allow residents and local businesses to obtain a license to operate their vehicles on city streets, while visitors would be required to tow their vehicles to 4x4 trailheads. Such a local system would require state action to amend existing OHV laws. Niehaus volunteered to organize a lobbying effort in pursuit of the idea.
Clif Koontz is one of the founders of Ride with Respect, a Moab-based organization launched in 2002 that advocates for motorized access and a culture of mutual respect between user groups. In an Oct. 19 letter to the commission and the council, Koontz noted that the group has been emphasizing quiet mufflers and considerate operation of off-road vehicles since its inception. He outlined three suggested tactics to reduce UTV noise without having to change state law: improve education efforts, monitor and enforce noise limits, and lobby UTV manufacturers to stop producing their loudest models.
City Attorney Laurie Simonson also emphasized a willingness to collaborate with the UTV community.
“We have heard from industry organizations that they understand the need for compromise on this issue and we appreciate that,” she said. “We want to work with industry organizations to reach a compromise.”
Knuteson-Boyd staunchly agreed with that perspective.
“I think the people that we need to embrace are the people within our own community that have championed this industry and have been good ambassadors and have been our allies in this, and elevate them a little bit,” she said.