Moab UTVs on 300 South

[Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

The Moab City Council passed a long-awaited noise ordinance at their regular meeting on April 27 meant to address general noise complaints from residents across the city, specifically noise stemming from off-highway vehicles. Councilmembers ironed out specific time windows and decibel limits for recreational activity on Tuesday to finalize the ordinance and now look forward to gauging its impact.

“We’re trying to embrace our full spectrum of recreation opportunities that we provide here in Moab. I want the motorized community to hear loud and clear from me and this council that we’re not trying to restrict or reject this type of recreation,” Mayor Emily Niehaus said at the meeting.

Last week, the Grand County Commission passed their new noise ordinance and tweaked land-use codes related to OHV businesses in the county. While the county’s decisions affected business licenses and fleet sizes, the Moab City ordinance only affects noise levels. The Grand County noise ordinance passed unanimously, limiting all vehicles to 92 decibels as measured by a standardized stationary test.

The council reached consensus on this 92dBa limit because most stock-model OHVs can meet this standard, or be slightly modified with after-market mufflers to meet it. A regular car in good working order should easily meet this standard.

The noise limit for all vehicles in Moab City from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday is 92dBa, with the window shortened to 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays. During the nighttime hours — from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays and 10 p.m. to 9 a.m. for Sunday mornings — no vehicle may exceed 85 dBa, with no seasonal changes.

One of the most controversial issues in Moab in past years, OHV noise has divided the community; many residents blame OHVs for lack of peace and quiet, while OHV recreaters have felt mistreated by local governments.

“I do feel like if this noise ordinance can reinstate confidence in our relationship between residents and the motorized recreation community, then it’s a good thing. I’m hopeful that tensions can now ‘throttle down,’” the mayor said.

The ordinance

Between the nighttime hours of 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday and until 9 a.m. on Sundays, the ordinance limits noise emitted from radios, televisions, musical instruments, loudspeakers and other similar devices. Noise from such sources cannot create noise pollution across a real property boundary, or be audible from over 50 feet away, during these hours. During the day, such noise is prohibited if it can be heard from over 150 feet away.

Noise due to construction is exempt from this noise ordinance from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturdays and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

The ordinance also includes prohibitions relating to street sales, animals, boats and more. Grand County High School, maintenance and emergency vehicles, places of worship and others are exempted from these restrictions.

The ordinance outlines that all vehicles in the city must be equipped to prevent excessive noise, such as with a muffler. Tampering with and removing mufflers or other similar sound-repressing devices is against the law.

No vehicle in Moab City may exceed 92 dBa according to the 20-inch test at any time. The ordinance delineates other specific decibel limits for other specific tests, such as tests from 25 and 50 feet away. The nighttime hour 20-inch test limit of 85 dBa applies to vehicles under 10,000 pounds between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m.

“We’re just trying to create boundaries around this kind of recreation, just like all other types of recreation have boundaries,” the mayor said at Tuesday’s meeting.

After years of attempting to ameliorate the issue with education and awareness campaigns, this noise ordinance is the most decisive action local government has taken on the noise issue.

“This is very much a compromise. Many vehicles used recreationally do not meet this [ordinance]; they are much noisier than vehicles which are commonly used for transportation, which is what our streets are primarily intended for,” said Councilmember Kalen Jones. “I think it’s a good first step and I look forward to seeing how much impact it has and adjusting as appropriate.”

The motion to approve the noise ordinance, which will replace existing language, passed 4-1, with Mike Duncan dissenting. “I don’t feel good trying to legislate every little nuance that comes along, every little annoyance in our lives,” Duncan explained. He made an earlier motion for the city ordinance to match the county’s in terms of time windows, which failed for lack of a second.

OHV community speaks out

Before the passage of the Moab City noise ordinance on Tuesday and the Grand County noise ordinance last week, several off-road groups voiced their concerns and suggestions for legislation. BlueRibbon Coalition, Utah OHV Advocates, UTV Utah, Utah Offroad, Utah ATV/OHV Association, Moab Cowboy Off-Road Adventures and the Moab UTV Group suggested a limit of 96 dBa for all vehicles to the Grand County Commission, citing California, Colorado and Idaho as states who have set a noise limit of 96 dBa statewide, as well the federal government for noise levels on federally managed land.

The groups also expressed that they would comply with lower noise limits for curfew hours as long as such limits applied to all vehicles on the road. The target of such a noise ordinance, these groups believe, should be the few OHV users who make extreme modifications to their vehicles to make them louder, rather than the majority of law-abiding users.

“Creating a patchwork of different noise ordinance levels makes it difficult to educate users and makes it difficult to enforce at a local level since manufacturers build to standards set by higher levels of government,” said Ben Burr, BlueRibbon Coalition's policy director. “A patchwork of different noise levels will also likely create a situation where the state legislature or Congress will need to intervene to create more uniform standards for this issue that involves interstate commerce.”

Ultimately, the commission decided on a limit of 92 dBa, with quieter limits during restricted hours of 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays and 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. on Sundays. From May to September, the restricted hours are amended to 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan said that based on the county’s own research, a limit of 92 dBa will best protect against all brands of stock machines.

Ride with Respect Executive Director Clif Koontz sent a lengthy letter to both the Grand County Commission and the Moab City Council on Tuesday outlining his concerns with both bodies’ noise ordinances.

“There are still a lot of mostly technical aspects that I think are still very important to look at closely before you approve anything. It’s not that I want to stall this process, but I think we should get it right to show the state legislature that they can rely on you to regulate sound,” Koontz said at Tuesday’s council meeting. “RwR absolutely wants to quiet down the louder vehicles of all types, but we don’t want to let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

In their letter, RwR acknowledged progress made, such as the general consensus that OHV education is not a solution and that lowering speed limits led to results. The off-road group also expressed support for the 92dBa limit, describing it as “attainable for all kinds of UTV, although it may require an aftermarket muffler...but the additional cost will significantly help resolve noise concerns.” However, members would prefer a higher noise limit for highway motorcycles.

RwR found issue with the nighttime noise limit and hours, arguing that an 85 dBA limit

“would effectively place a curfew on...the vast majority of motorcycles/UTVs.”

“Equipment obviously doesn’t get quieter at night, so it’s essentially a method to exclude certain vehicle types. It would not help the city in earning trust that it would regulate vehicles reasonably,” the letter read.

The noise ordinance, said Councilmember Tawny Knuteson-Boyd, is not perfect, nor will it transform Moab into a silent, sleepy town. Rather, the objective is to improve the quality of life for Moab residents and to prove to the state legislature that local government can solve local problems. But the noise ordinance has potential to change the way visitors interact with Moab and its landscape.

“In February, we woke up to our artwork downtown damaged. A few weeks ago, our wetlands closed to the public because they were being abused. There was a report that a climber had driven anchors into one of our petroglyphs, and in the last few nights, the Birthing Rock was vandalized,” Knuteson-Boyd said. “It feels like people are coming to our town and not treating it with the respect that it deserves.”

Local officials, residents and business owners alike hope that the newly passed noise ordinance will prove effective, reduce tensions throughout Moab and restore peace and quiet.

“We work for the people who live in Moab and who elected us. Yes, we want [tourists] to come and visit and we want them to enjoy it. But these are our rules,” Knuteson-Boyd continued. “Yes, come visit. But please respect our residents and our town.”