Semi-trucks, motorcycles, UTVs, modified pickups and souped-up coupes: all were mentioned as contributors to noise in the Moab Valley during a workshop held by the Grand County Commission on June 21 ahead of its regular meeting.
Members of the public weighed in with comments and commissioners discussed noise reduction or mitigation ideas offered by the public and generated by a working group composed of representatives from the county’s Economic Development, Active Transportation and Trails, Code Compliance, and Planning and Zoning departments, as well as lawmakers and law enforcement officers.
Dozens of ideas were proposed. At the end of the workshop, commissioners identified education, advertising and enforcement as priority approaches for staff to pursue.
“This discussion really is about noise in all forms,” noted Commissioner Kevin Walker. “Not just UTVs. Any rules we pass about noise ordinances, they’re not going to focus on just one type of vehicle.”
About a dozen members of the public shared thoughts on the local noise issue, offering a plethora of ideas for mitigation.
Just some of the ideas floated during the meeting included: collaborating with the UTV industry to produce quieter machines; incentivizing local UTV businesses to purchase quieter fleets; reducing and/or enforcing speed limits; using zoning policies to buffer residents from traffic noise; increasing parking at popular trailheads to encourage UTV drivers to use trailers through town; improving signage; creating a frontage road for UTVs along Highway 191; using noise mitigation infrastructure like sound fences; enlisting help from off-road advocacy groups for noise mitigation efforts; and limiting or banning convoys.
Some of these ideas overlapped with a list generated by the noise working group, which included advertising that promotes good driving etiquette; standardizing current messaging; partnering with the Utah State Legislature on statutes regarding mufflers and speed limits; increasing enforcement of noise ordinances and speed limits; partnering with the Bureau of Land Management on signs, messaging, and trailhead improvements; adjusting the land-use code; and creating a program recognizing UTV businesses who work toward noise reduction.
Many of these ideas have been discussed before; some are more difficult to achieve than others, and some are already underway. Members of the Noise Working Group met with state legislators to discuss possible strategies. Legislators told local leaders that they wanted to see enforcement of existing speed limits and noise ordinances.
Grand County Economic Development Director August Granath and Active Transportation and Trails Director Maddie Logowitz discussed advertising and outreach being developed. They are sketching a follow-up to the “Throttle Down in Town” campaign with the tagline “Your Adventure Starts in Neighborhoods,” to remind recreators that they’re driving past people’s homes on their way to trails and public lands. Commissioner Sarah Stock noted that while she supports messaging to promote courteous driving, she wants to ensure that it doesn’t turn into characterizing Moab as primarily a motorized destination—she wants advertisements to highlight Moab’s opportunities for solitude and appreciation of nature.
The Active Transportation and Trails Department also heads a “Trail Ambassador” program, which posts county staff at trailheads to help promote responsible recreation. Right now the ambassadors are focused on hiking and biking trails, but Logowitz hopes to soon expand to also staff motorized trailheads.
Utah State House Bill 180, which passed the state legislature this spring, imposes an education requirement on ATV operators. Sand Flats Recreation Area Director Andrea Brand and Grand County Code Enforcement Officer Josh Green helped develop some of the material for the course, which is about 30 minutes long, with five sections and a 26-question quiz at the end. The Division of Outdoor Recreation, the outdoor ethics advocacy nonprofit Tread Lightly, and members of the OHV community also collaborated to design the course. OHV operators will be required to show proof of completion of the course beginning Jan. 1, 2023.
Granath and Logowitz also discussed creating an incentivized, Moab-specific education course for OHV drivers—an online course that entitles those who completed it to a free whip flag from the Moab Information Center, for example.
HB 180 also imposes mandatory community service for violators of OHV laws, and the service must be completed in the location where the violation occurred.
Green is optimistic about these policies. “They’re going to be very effective, in my humble opinion,” he said.
Other ideas have run into obstacles. Partnering with the BLM is difficult, some meeting participants noted, because the federal agency must complete lengthy processes before undertaking projects—they’re also understaffed and have limited funding.
“If we want them to do more, we need to think about how to persuade them,” Walker pointed out. “Asking politely every three months with a rational argument—that’s what we’ve been trying for three years… It’s not enough to come up with a good idea the BLM could do; we also have to come up with a way to convince them to find time and money.”
Regarding the idea for sound barriers, County Attorney Christina Sloan pointed out that the county currently has fairly restrictive fencing regulations in the land-use code that could impede the construction of those barriers, and that code might need to be updated to allow for such projects.
Chief Deputy Sheriff Darrel Mechem spoke on behalf of the Grand County Sheriff’s Department about noise, speed and traffic enforcement. In response to some citizens who complained specifically about excessive noise from semi-trucks on Highway 191 using their jake brakes or accelerating quickly, Mecham said, “Remember, on 191, it’s a state highway, it’s a major route of commerce—and you’re going to be very limited on anything you can do with that at all.”
Mecham reported that sheriff’s officers have recently cited 12 unlicensed UTVs, issued eight warnings and impounded one UTV. The department issued more citations last year for improper licensing—there are specific licensing requirements for street-legal UTVs—but this year, Mecham said, more UTVs have the correct licensing.
Mecham said officers do cite vehicle operators for having modified exhausts, and that it’s easy to tell when an exhaust has been modified, regardless of vehicle type. He does not like the county’s policy of lower speed limits for certain types of vehicles, he said:
“That’s one of the hardest ones to stomach because, I’ll be honest with you, from the law enforcement side, if you have a street-legal machine, they’re not modified and they’ve passed the noise standards… how do you do that to them and not do it to the other cars?” he said.
He also noted that he’s heard complaints from residents who dislike getting stuck behind slow-moving UTVs obeying the posted limits. Sloan pointed out that statute expressly allows for different speed limits for different vehicles.
Mecham also expressed concerns about enforcing the county’s relatively new noise ordinances. The rules have to be applied the same for all types of vehicles, he said, and he foresees issues. He thinks noise monitoring could reveal that many vehicles are in violation of the ordinance, not just one type.
“We’ve got to walk that tightrope of not creating bad case law. Because if all we do is UTVs, it’s going to get us. You can’t do that. You have to enforce it fairly,” he said.
Mecham said that from his point of view, most UTV drivers are compliant with laws for street-legal vehicles and are obeying posted speed limits, but the increase in the number of UTVs has given the impression that they’re more deviant than they are.
“There’s more compliance now than there’s been in a long time,” Mecham said. “It’s just sheer numbers that we’re dealing with.”
While a lot of the discussion did center around UTVs, participants also noted other noise-generating vehicles. In addition to semi-trucks, people said they’d been disturbed by pickup trucks with modified exhausts or small coupe-style cars that have been modified to have increased power, resulting in loud acceleration.
Commissioner Mary McGann suggested incorporating some educational content on courteous driving into high school or driver’s ed courses—she suspects that it’s in large part young drivers who are attracted to those types of vehicle modifications.
“A lot of the problem is beefed-up trucks that the kids love,” she said. “I’m sure I would have loved them when I was in high school.”
The noise working group will continue to narrow down the strategies likely to have the easiest implementation and most impact, starting with the categories favored by the commission.
“I very much think… education and advertisement and enforcement are the best tools we have in our toolbox to work on our noise issue with the hand that we’ve been dealt,” said Commission Chair Jacques Hadler.