Utah Sen. David Hinkins [Photo: Utah State Senate]

Grand County residents have been eagerly watching the progress at the state capitol of Senate Bill 168, which would have allowed resort communities in Utah to impose a curfew on OHV use on municipal streets between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. Many residents hoped the bill would give Moab City a tool to reduce excessive noise from the popular vehicles; others see UTVs as being unfairly targeted by the proposed legislation, and urge officials to instead enforce existing regulations that apply to all vehicles to address ongoing noise complaints. The bill, which was introduced by Sen. Mike McKell (R-District 7), failed in the Senate in a 14-15 vote on Feb. 24.

Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus told the Moab Sun News that while she is disappointed that the bill did not pass, the city will continue working on other possible avenues to address noise pollution in the Moab Valley.

Sen. David Hinkins (R-District 27), who represents Grand as well as San Juan, Emery, Carbon, and parts of Utah and Wasatch counties, voted against SB 168. In a conversation with the Moab Sun News, Hinkins said he’d heard roughly equal numbers of comments from citizens against the bill as in support of it.

“I’m hearing from people that are being disturbed, but I’m also hearing from businesses that are tied to UTVs,” he said.

Hinkins said he was struck by statements made during the debate that Moab law enforcement had issued no noise violation citations to OHV operators recently, or even in the last decade. However, Moab City and Grand County attorneys have explained to local elected officials that enforcing noise ordinances against vehicles is difficult: legally, it’s unclear whether noise may be used as a primary reason for law enforcement to make a traffic stop and even with advanced sound monitoring equipment, it’s difficult to prove in court that the decibels measured in a traffic stop were emitted by a single vehicle and not significantly affected by ambient sound levels.

During the debate, McKell pointed out that his own city of Spanish Fork, with over seven times Moab’s population, also does not issue noise violations to vehicles.

“Outside of parties, they’ve never enforced a noise ordinance on a vehicle at night,” McKell said, having contacted the city’s police department ahead of the debate to learn more. “It’s very, very difficult to do.”

County Attorney Christana Sloan told the Grand County Commission at a recent meeting that the Utah Association of Counties opposed SB 168, but suggested that Moab pursue legislation that would allow a suspected noise violation to be a primary reason for law enforcement to make a traffic stop.

Asked if he would support such an effort, Hinkins didn’t commit.

“I think it’s something that should be studied a little bit more,” he said.

In an email to the Moab Sun News, Moab Police Chief Bret Edge wrote, “I do think noise enforcement would be easier to accomplish if suspected violations were a primary stop.” He noted that with limited resources, the Moab City Police Department prioritizes responding to calls and risks to public safety. Edge believes the best approach to enforce noise ordinances will involve vehicle checkpoints. The county and city attorneys have been working with stakeholders and other officials to flesh out how such checkpoints would work. Sen. Curtis Bramble (R-District 16), who brought up the issue of noise ordinances during the discussion, also wanted to know whether any speeding tickets had been issued to OHVs in Moab, noting that the vehicles are quieter at slower speeds. Moab City and Grand County recently imposed OHV-specific speed limits on their streets with the hope of reducing noise.

Edge explained that up until now, officers have not distinguished the type of vehicle involved when reporting traffic stops. Going forward, Edge said, OHV traffic stops made by city police officers will be coded as such in the department’s records management system. So far this year, the department has issued 64 speeding citations, but they have not been linked to a specific vehicle type; future data will include that information.

Hinkins said that he sympathized with UTV advocates who feel they’re being unfairly targeted. Hinkins said that he has heard resentment that Moab and Grand County hired a lobbyist—Casey Hill of Red Hill Strategic—to advocate for the measure at the state legislature.

“They’re just trying to strongarm: The ATV people feel that that’s what happening,” Hinkins said. He also noted that he felt the counties he represents, besides Grand, opposed SB 168.

SB 168’s language did not enact a blanket curfew, but rather would have allowed resort communities, as defined in state tax code, with 5,000 or more residents the option of voting to enact a local curfew between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. The curfew would only apply to municipal streets, not state or county roads or to public lands. During the debate, McKell listed the eligible communities. Aside from Moab, they are Dutch John, Green River, Boulder, Bryce Canyon, Escalante, Panguitch, Tropic, Brian Head, Kanab, Orderville, Garden City, Alta, Brighton, Bluff, and Park City.

Niehaus said the city will take its cues from the arguments made during the debate, and focus on refining and enforcing its existing policies.

“We heard loud and clear that isolating a particular user group felt very discriminatory, although they are not a protected class,” she said. “I think we are going to move forward with an attempt to really focus on noise.”

One early step the city may take is to move the noise ordinance from the “zoning” section of city code to the “health and safety” section. This would make it easier for the city council to amend the ordinance, according to comments from City Planning Director Nora Shepard at a Feb. 25 City Planning Commission meeting. Niehaus said the council will work on the noise ordinance language and viable ways to enforce it.

She said it’s unlikely the council will revive a tabled motion to place a cap on OHV fleets for local guide and rental companies. The city wants to listen to and work with local OHV businesses, she said. If SB 168 had passed, Niehaus said the city would have considered exemptions to the curfew for local guide companies giving sunset tours, for example. She lamented the failure of compromise on the bill. In the senate, McKell agreed to an amendment to the bill that changed the possible curfew hours from between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. to between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., but that concession did not win enough votes to send the bill on to the house of representatives.

“It really did feel like the legislature put recreation over residents,” Niehaus said.

However, she also pointed out that SB 168 is just one piece of the puzzle. Even if it had passed, the city would still be looking at other mechanisms to control noise pollution.

“The issue has been going on for long enough that a quick solution isn’t reasonable to expect,” she said. She also emphasized that the city only has jurisdiction over its own boundaries―city policy cannot govern the Sand Flats Recreation Area, for example, which is owned by the Bureau of Land Management and jointly managed by that agency and Grand County.

“Our job is to protect residents where they live and work in the city, and coordinate with the county and public land managers,” she said.