Commission discusses HDHO, noise pollution

The March 2 Grand County Commission meeting included deep discussions of two issues paramount to many residents: the high density housing overlay and excessive vehicle noise in residential areas. The commission also discussed new bylaws for the planning commission.

At their last meeting, the commission tabled a vote on a set of “rules and regulations” meant to clarify certain aspects of the county’s high density housing overlay policy. The HDHO, passed in 2019, was crafted over many months of discussion and intended to create an incentive for attainable workforce housing by allowing developers to build at higher density than zoning would otherwise allow in exchange for 80% of the housing units being deed restricted for Grand County residents and workers.

County Attorney Christina Sloan said she had heard questions from realtors and developers, prompting her to draft the clarifying rules and regulations. A main item of confusion was the requirement that the owner, not just the occupant, of a deed-restricted HDHO home be a qualified household. Some developers had been planning their project financing based on the understanding that anyone might own the homes, as long as they were occupied by Grand County primary residents and workers.

Developers and representatives of HDHO subdivisions Murphy Flats and Peak View have commented at several previous meetings and again weighed in, urging the commission to support their interpretation of the HDHO, which would allow anyone, including nonresidents of Grand County, to own HDHO units, as long as the occupants are Grand County residents.

Rachel Moody, a realtor and former member of the Moab Area Housing Task Force, also called in to oppose the local ownership requirement. In her work on the HDHO through the task force, she said, “Occupancy was our priority, not particularly ownership.”

“With the original intention, anyone can own the units,” she said, noting that she’s heard from some developers that they won’t move forward with their projects under the policy as interpreted in the rules and regulations. “It sounds like it’s going to crumble, and that’s not what I want to hear.”

Most commissioners expressed their support for the clarifying rules and regulations at the last meeting, but reiterated their arguments on Tuesday. Commissioner Kevin Walker, who was also involved in the development of the HDHO, said that the Grand County resident/worker ownership requirement is the only check on the price of the home.

“There was a lot of discussion that the prices will naturally moderate because of free market forces and the fact that only local buyers who are actively employed will be eligible to buy them—that point was made over and over and over again,” Walker said.

Commissioner Evan Clapper agreed, saying, “The intent of this was to create opportunities for our workforce. This was never intended to ask locals to have this increased density in their backyard for second home owner investment opportunities.”

Commission Chair Mary McGann said the issue had been difficult for her.

“It took me a long time to separate my emotional attachment to the developers,” she said. “I think they’re incredible people.” McGann was speaking specifically of the Murphy Flats developers.

However, McGann recalled the “grueling” process of designing the HDHO and the agreement that “if we were going to increase density, it had to be for people who lived and worked in Moab to buy the housing.”

McGann and other commissioners were also relieved to hear Sloan describe options the developers have for financing projects, including securing outside investment in their development companies and leveraging the unrestricted 20% of the units in their development.

The commission unanimously passed the rules and regulations, affirming the requirement that in order to buy an HDHO unit, households must meet qualifications of living and working in Grand County.

Multiple citizens called in to remind commissioners that noise pollution is an ongoing issue of paramount concern to many Grand County residents. Letters to the editor, comments at public meetings, citizens petitions, and social media groups have all made clear that traffic noise in residential areas is a huge problem, and many associate that noise specifically with the increase in UTV traffic in recent years. Local businesses that offer 4wd or UTV guided tours and rentals have pushed back against proposed restrictions, and a recent state bill that would have allowed resort towns to impose curfews on OHVs died in the senate on Feb. 24. Local officials are trying to create ways they can effectively enforce noise ordinances to address the issue.

“We are working really hard on a noise ordinance update,” Sloan told the commission. Enforcing noise ordinances on vehicles is difficult, Sloan said, because for a noise test to hold up in court, it must be a vetted test conducted in a controlled environment with calibrated equipment.

She described a demonstration offered by Moab local Clif Koontz, director of motorized trail advocacy group Ride with Respects and chair of the Grand County Motorized Trails Advisory Committee, of a noise measuring protocol designed by the Society of Automotive Engineers called the J1287. Koontz gave a similar demonstration to the Moab Sun News in November of 2020 (See “Just how loud are they?” Nov. 19 edition. -ed.). Staff and elected officials joined Koontz for a stationary sound test of six different models of UTV.

Sloan said the only way to prove a noise violation in court is through a stationary test like the J1287. She said the city attorney, prosecutor chief deputy, the sheriff and police chief all share that opinion. To implement such a test, checkpoints will be necessary. Future “experiments” with drive-by enforcement might be possible, she said, but would still only be grounds for a traffic stop to conduct the stationary test.

She added that a checkpoint “is a big deal,” requiring court approval and a significant amount of resources. Both the sheriff’s office and police department have told Sloan that they couldn’t undertake a checkpoint without each other’s support.

Commissioner Walker said he disagreed with Sloan that the options for noise enforcement are limited. He said he’s discussed the issue with a noise consultant, who noted that in some cities, a subjective test using nothing but an enforcement officer’s ears is used as an enforcement tool.

“I don’t think that this tailpipe test is the only thing that’s available to us,” Walker said. “I think we have a lot of options, and we should probably put as many as we can on the books and tackle enforcement afterwards. And if we get a provision in there that’s hard to enforce, then we just use the others.”

Sloan countered, saying, “I only want to write into the noise ordinance now what I’m willing to prosecute—what the sheriff supports my office prosecuting… I don’t want to create confusion for the public and frustration for the public that we’re not acting to the fullest extent we can.”

McGann suggested signage threatening strict noise enforcement might deter some offenders.

What meeting participants all agreed on is that the issue “is huge,” as Commissioner Sarah Stock said. “This is all people talk about.”

Sloan urged officials and the public to forward their noise complaints on to the sheriff’s office, so law enforcement will have a more clear understanding of the scope of the disturbance. In a conversation, Sloan said the sheriff told her his office has not received noise complaints.

The Grand County Commission meets on the first and third Tuesday of every month at 4 p.m. Meetings are streamed online at the Grand County Youtube channel. Schedules, agendas and opportunities for public comment can be found at Residents can email to automatically reach each County Commission member, the commission administrator, the associate commission administrator, and the county attorney.