[Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Moab City Attorney Laurie Simonson summarized steps the city has already taken toward mitigating street noise at a city council workshop on March 9: It has implemented a 15 mile-per-hour speed limit for off-highway vehicles like UTVs and ATVs on city streets, placed a moratorium on licenses for new UTV-related businesses, and placed a moratorium on on special event permits for ATV events.

After the defeat of a proposed state law that would have allowed Moab to place a nighttime curfew on OHVs, the council discussed revising the city’s existing noise ordinance and approaches to enforcement and touched on coordinating on noise issues with other authorities like Grand County and the Bureau of Land Management.

“I just wanted to make a nod to the hours and hours and hours that we’ve all spent on this issue,” said Mayor Emily Niehaus.

Les Blomberg, executive director of the national nonprofit Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, was invited to the workshop and offered advice on Moab City’s noise ordinance.

“In general, the noise ordinance needs a little revision,” he told the council, pointing out areas where the ordinance is weak or unclear. The enforceability of Moab’s existing noise ordinance has been debated both locally and by state legislators.

Blomberg outlined several tools he’s seen used in other municipalities that he thought could help Moab, many of which have come up in previous community discussions. Curfews, equipment requirements like an EPA-stamped muffler and drive-by monitoring for a specific decibel threshold were all invoked. Blomberg mentioned the “20-inch test,” which measures the noise emitted by a stationary vehicle 20 inches from its tailpipe. [See “Just how loud are they,” Nov. 23, 2020 edition. -ed.]

Blomberg acknowledged that each of these tools has advantages and disadvantages and recommended that the city adopt them all, so that enforcement officers can select the most appropriate for each circumstance.

In discussions over the last few months, both city and county staff have expressed doubts about whether “drive-by” style noise measurements would be defensible in court. County Attorney Christina Sloan told the Moab Sun News in a recent email that after extensive research, she has concluded that, legally, noise violations themselves can justify a traffic stop.

Another concern about pursuing a drive-by noise test has been the cost of purchasing sound monitoring equipment and training officers.

Moab Police Chief Bret Edge was present at the workshop, and told the council that earlier cost estimates for the necessary sound monitoring equipment were too low. After researching certification, calibration, and classes of equipment, Edge increased his previous estimate for a sound monitoring kit from $4,500 to about $8,800.

“It is going to be more expensive than we thought originally, but it will provide solid information that would stand a better chance of surviving should a case go to court,” Edge said.

Blomberg cautioned the council, noting that he has observed meter manufacturers selling municipalities expensive equipment that he considers unnecessary for monitoring sound levels. That caution was challenged by City Attorney Simonson, however.

“It’s very important for us to make sure that we’re spending our money wisely, but that we’re not just taking the cheapest route on equipment or anything else,” she said.

Blomberg noted that some cities dealing with noise pollution issues use a “plainly audible at a distance” standard, which relies on a more subjective standard allowing law enforcement to simply use their ears to evaluate when something is too loud.

“Plainly audible at a distance” tests, Blomberg noted, capture accurately what the community is experiencing because the same tool is used: the human ear at a specific distance. However, tests like this are usually used in crowded, noisy cities like New York. In Moab, the ambient soundscape is quiet enough that even a quiet vehicle might be audible from a significant distance, making that tool potentially impractical for Moab.

Councilmember Mike Duncan pointed out that decibel-monitoring tests don’t discriminate by vehicle-type, a concern voiced by UTV and ATV advocacy groups. Those concerns were repeated in the Citizens to be Heard section of the regular council meeting immediately following the workshop.

Bud Bruning, president of UTV Utah, called in to comment that the group would not object to some sort of noise enforcement.

“We don’t want to be annoying people; we don’t want to get yelled at,” Bruning said. “I would love to see these bad apples have their vehicles impounded because they give us a bad name and we don’t appreciate it. If someone is being obnoxiously loud, I would like to see them cited.”

Duncan said that he has drafted a noise ordinance, drawing from his engineering background, outlining noise monitoring tests the city might use. The proposed ordinance is in legal review at the city.

City Manager Joel Linares explained that city staff are also considering reclassifying noise ordinance violations from criminal to civil infractions. The reclassification would limit penalties to a fine and mean that enforcement would not have to be done by a trained police officer, but could be done by a civilian.

Linares said that staff believed the city would be in a better position to defend a civil penalty than a criminal charge if challenged in court.

Councilmembers remained split on a proposed moratorium on local guide and rental businesses increasing their UTV fleets. No action was taken on this item at the workshop.

The city of Moab and Grand County have struggled with how to deal with noise pollution for years, and the conversation came to a close with many more ideas flagged, including working directly with UTV manufacturers to produce quieter models, creating UTV warehouses at trailheads, offering incentives for local guide companies to transition to quieter machines and creating alternative entrances to popular off-road destinations. These and other items will be more thoroughly discussed at future meetings.