Grand County Council member Curtis Wells spoke on Tuesday, Sept. 5, about the county permit for the Rally on the Rocks UTV gathering. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

The second-largest special event in Grand County is still welcome here, as long as organizers continue to follow the county’s special event ordinance and other stipulations.

Grand County Council members voted 5-2 on Tuesday, Sept. 5, to send a letter to Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison that affirms their support for the continued permitting of the Rally on the Rocks UTV and side-by-side off-road vehicle gathering. Greg Halliday and Evan Clapper voted against the majority.

The mayor previously urged the county council not to renew the permit, citing some residents’ concerns about UTV noise and “extreme” disruptions to the community during the mid-May event.

Sakrison told the Moab Sun News that his 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.

However, the county’s special events coordinating committee reported that the county received just one complaint about Rally on the Rocks around the time of this year’s event. Moreover, committee members said they cannot be certain that event attendees are responsible for the “unacceptable noise” that the mayor cited in his letter to the county.

“They could not find that there was a reason for denial, according to our ordinance,” Grand County Special Events Coordinator Michele Hill told the council.

Rally on the Rocks co-owner Lanse Chournos drove five hours each way last month to attend an Aug. 17 meeting where committee members discussed the event’s permit. He was confident that Rally on the Rocks organizers weren’t doing anything wrong, and he felt vindicated by the outcome of that meeting, where members ultimately supported the event’s permit.

“They all spoke so well at the meeting on our behalf,” Chournos told the Moab Sun News. “It was a testament to what we’ve been trying to do for seven years.”

Hill noted that the county doesn’t actually have a separate noise ordinance that it can enforce, while Halliday pointed out that the community doesn’t allow cars on its roads unless they have mufflers.

“I don’t see where these are any different,” Halliday told the county council. “If they’re going to be street legal, then they’re going to have to fall within the parameters of any other vehicle on the road.”

Grand County Council member Curtis Wells said that many of the disruptive UTVs he’s encountered are rented vehicles, and the “weekend warriors” who drive them think they’re in “some kind of ‘Mad Max’ episode.”

“I also don’t like creating an environment where we’re exempting the UTV rental companies in town that have a stake in this, too, and blaming this on an event that is doing things that they can to mitigate the problem,” Wells told the council.

Now in its seventh year, Rally on the Rocks continues to grow each spring. In 2017, the five-day 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.

During the escorts, a section of U.S. Highway 191 is closed for 15 minutes, as authorized under a permit from the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT).

According to the special event committee’s findings, a UDOT official reported that the department has received a few complaints about the disruptions, but the official said the complaints were “no worse for this event than for any other event.”

Sakrison said he hasn’t had an opportunity to review the special events committee’s report to the county council. But he’d like to revisit the issues with both entities before he leaves office later this year.

“I think this would be a good opportunity to sit down and talk things over,” he told the Moab Sun News.

Beyond the concerns he raised about Rally on the Rocks, Sakrison said that community leaders should consider a bigger two-part question about UTVs: Are they designed and manufactured in accordance with the noise, safety and pollution standards governing cars, and do they belong on Moab’s residential and commercial thoroughfares?

“I think the logical person can draw the conclusion that these are not designed to be on city streets,” he said.

In the future, Chournos said he’s open to “reasonable” discussions with Sakrison and his successor, while continuing to work with county officials on any issues that may arise.

“We’re happy to move forward and continue to make adjustments as needed,” Chournos said.

McGann seeks changes to UTV registration, manufacturing

Grand County Council vice chair Mary McGann is planning to work with Moab City Police Chief Jim Winder and others to “re-energize” and lobby state lawmakers on issues related to the licensing and registration of UTVs. She also hopes to encourage UTV manufacturers to build vehicles with quieter engines.

“Because they can and have the ability to make them quiet,” she said. “People that use them for hunting do not want them to (be noisy).”

Wells, however, rejected both of McGann’s ideas.

“It’s a waste of time, in my opinion,” he said.

In the case of the legislature, Wells said, lawmakers will want to know about the fiscal impacts that any licensing or registration changes could have.

“And all the revenue that’s generated from licensing and registration for UTVs – you’re asking them to cut that out of the budget,” he said.

Wells also didn’t see the need to lobby manufacturers and tell them that, in his words, Moab has a “little, unique situation where we’re hypersensitive” to the noise from UTVs.

But McGann, who serves on the Throttle Down in Town committee that educates visitors about UTV laws and in-town riding etiquette, said the committee found that the noise problem is not unique to Grand County. In reaching out to other towns and cities where UTVs have proliferated, she said, the committee heard similar concerns.

“We’re not the only community that is having issues with the noise from these ATV-UTVs,” she said.

Grand County Council member Rory Paxman ultimately noted that some manufacturers within the industry are already working to build muted engines: One of his friends, he said, just sold an older vehicle and upgraded to a new model that is significantly quieter.

“They are coming out, and I think eventually we won’t have this problem,” Paxman said.

Mayor seeks broader discussion about off-road vehicles on city streets