UTVs lined up in a row ahead of a past Rally on the Rocks trail ride near Moab. In 2017, the event drew an estimated 1,200 registered participants to the area. [Moab Sun News file photo]

If he didn’t have the Grand County Council’s attention last year, Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison likely has it by now.

In a letter to the council, Sakrison is urging the county not to renew the permit for the second-largest special event of the year, the Rally on the Rocks UTV and side-by-side off-road vehicle gathering.

The mayor made a similar request in 2016, although it never gained any traction. He renewed his calls last month, citing some residents’ concerns about UTV noise and “extreme” disruptions to the community, as UTV riders travel between the event headquarters at the Old Spanish Trail Arena and trailheads on surrounding public lands.

Sakrison told the Moab Sun News that his latest letter could be a starting point to hold discussions with event organizers about ways they can address the issues that some residents have brought to the city’s attention.

“I don’t think that this is an insurmountable deal,” Sakrison said. “I just think that there needs to be some additional guidelines.”

It’s a conversation that they need to have, he said, because of the “significant” and “negative” criticisms that local residents have voiced about Rally on the Rocks.

“It’s impacting neighborhoods,” Sakrison said. “I think that people have a right to peace and quiet.”

As far as Rally on the Rocks owner and event promoter Lanse Chournos is concerned, though, the event is in good standing with the community.

Chournos said that no one from the city has contacted him to discuss the issues that Sakrison raised in his letter to the county council, and to date, he said he has read just one documented complaint from a local resident.

Until he sees additional comments in writing, Chournos questions whether concerns about the event are widespread, or limited to a handful of critics.

“It’s easy to say, ‘A whole bunch of people called us to complain,’ but to me, I need to have more proof,” he said.

Now in its seventh year, Rally on the Rocks continues to grow each spring. In 2017, the event drew an estimated 1,200 registered participants to the Moab area in mid-May for group rides along world-famous trails like Hell’s Revenge and Fins-N-Things.

For 12 of the event’s 29 guided trail routes, UTV riders follow a paid Grand County Sheriff’s Office escort for about an hour each morning over the course of five days per year. In order to reach the remaining 17 trails, registered participants are required to haul their UTVs in trailers to the trailheads, according to the event’s website.

“To me, that’s not an excessive amount of noise, given the amount of time that we’re on the roads,” Chournos said.

Putting aside that question, Sakrison said the sheer numbers of participants – as well as others who are drawn to town by the event – place a strain on community resources, from law enforcement to Emergency Medical Services to fire protection.

“The traffic impacts, the extreme noise levels, and the ancillary negative effects associated with the (Rally on the Rocks) event are all unacceptable,” the mayor’s letter says.

But Moab Side X Side Adventures owner and founder Jason Minasian, who has been involved with the event since 2012 as a guide, calls Rally on the Rocks a good way to showcase Moab for all of the activities that are available in the surrounding area.

“It teaches people how to be respectful towards the trails and the land that surrounds us,” Minasian said in a letter to the city. “I hope that this opportunity for the city of Moab is not wasted.”

Council member says residents’ comments skew against event

Moab City Council member Kalen Jones said that he has not received any comments from local residents in support of Rally on the Rocks. On the other side of the issue, however, Jones said that citizens have voiced their concerns about what they say are negative effects on city neighborhoods, from Mill Creek Drive to the east and the Mountain View subdivision to the west.

“Over the genesis of this event, we have received numerous complaints, both (verbally) and in writing, about how this impacts individuals who live here, with the traffic volumes and the noise,” Jones said. “It’s impacted their ability to get around town, and to enjoy their private property peacefully.”

In one case, Jones said, a resident reportedly had trouble getting to a doctor’s appointment because that person was stuck behind an escorted group of UTV riders.

Moab resident Kelly Mike Green said he suspects that city officials aren’t hearing from local UTV riders and others who support Rally on the Rocks because they don’t have the trust of those residents.

“(City officials) don’t represent all of the people in the city – they only represent a select few,” Green said. “So I’m not surprised that they don’t contact (city officials), because they know it falls on deaf ears.”

Green has attended several city meetings where issues related to UTVs were discussed, and he said the consensus at those meetings was that the community needs to educate UTV riders about traffic laws that are already on the books. The “Throttle Down in Town” campaign that followed those meetings was a success, he said, leading to noticeable changes in UTV riders’ behavior.

“What I’ve seen is a vast improvement of how riders are behaving, but I don’t think the city council or the mayor even know what the folks do out there with this Rally on the Rocks event,” he said.

As Green sees it, a small group of people who don’t like UTVs are behind the opposition to Rally on the Rocks.

Green is concerned that city officials are targeting a particular event, when the mayor’s letter could just as easily apply to any other event, from the April Action Car Show to the Moab Music Festival or Moab Half Marathon’s races.

“All of these create different kinds of problems, but we’ve learned to adjust to them, and just singling out this particular event seems very foolish and discriminatory to me,” Green said.

Sakrison counters that he welcomes people with different perspectives into his office at any time.

“I’ve always been willing to listen to anybody, and to say that, ‘Nobody’s going to listen to us,’ I don’t think that’s right, either,” the mayor said. “We listen to all of the people.”

Organizer sees economic benefit to event

Chournos said that event organizers work to teach Rally on the Rocks attendees the proper trail etiquette, and try to bolster their understanding of Utah’s UTV laws.

“We spend a lot of time training our people and educating them,” he said.

Attendees also fill up local hotel and motel rooms, he said, and they pump a still-undetermined – but significant – amount of money into the local economy.

Event organizers, meanwhile, pay for the law enforcement escorts to and from the Old Spanish Trail Arena, while attendees and vendors come forward with their own charitable contributions.

In 2016, Chournos said, well over $30,000 was donated to Grand County Search and Rescue. This year, event organizers gave more than $16,000 to the BEACON Afterschool Program and Helen M. Knight Elementary School’s backpack lunch program, thanks to the proceeds from a donated UTV that they auctioned off.

Chournos noted that thousands of dollars in fees also go to the county-owned Old Spanish Trail Arena, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA).

Green said that fees to the Old Spanish Trail Arena alone total about $11,000, and while that might not sound like much, he said that every little bit helps fund services in the community.

“(City officials) don’t really see the big picture as far as how does that translate into paying for local services like the aquatic center,” he said, especially as revenues from mineral leases and federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) decline.

In the event that Grand County denied the event’s permit, Green said that event organizers would still retain their state and federal permits, so they would likely move their event headquarters across the county line, while continuing to draw participants to Moab.

“They’ll go to San Juan County, and nothing will be solved,” he said. “And we’ll lose the revenue from the (Old Spanish Trail Arena) funding.”

Sakrison said that if the county council opted to discontinue the event’s permit, it’s unlikely to discourage visitors – including UTV or ATV riders – from coming to Moab.

“We’re becoming an event community, and I still think people are going to come,” he said. “I don’t think this is going to stop anybody from driving their ATVs up and down the street, or whatever.”

As Moab’s tourism-based economy continues to grow, Jones said that city officials may be in a position to pick and choose the kinds of events they’d like to see.

“I think that we can be more selective about the events we want here,” he said. “We felt this event was just moving too far away from what residents want.”

Sakrison said he realizes that his written recommendation to the county could have a potentially significant impact on the event.

“But come and talk to us,” he said. “That’s the logical thing to do, rather than saying, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh.’”

“Let’s sit down and work something out,” he added. “We’re not unreasonable people.”

UTV event organizer says attendees follow the laws, boost local economy