Public comments went on for over an hour at the Grand County Commission Dec. 6 meeting, with most speakers expressing alarm and opposition to a proposed ordinance that would limit aircraft takeoffs and landings to approved locations. Representatives from aviation nonprofits like the Utah Backcountry Pilots Association and the Recreational Aviation Foundation requested that the county collaborate with stakeholders before taking action; the state director of the Utah Division of Aeronautics traveled from Salt Lake City to attend the meeting and also requested collaboration.
Commissioners assured meeting participants that their intention was not to shut down backcountry air travel, and apologized for moving too fast and without adequate explanation and outreach. Commissioner Kevin Walker explained that the ordinance would not have had any immediate effects, and was intended to prompt the Bureau of Land Management to take some action to address an increasing number of complaints about aircraft noise. The body voted to postpone the matter indefinitely, and to instead draft a letter asking the BLM to act.
County resident concerns
The surge of public comments demonstrated the continuing friction between Grand County residents who cherish unregulated freedom and residents hoping that regulations can protect their quality of life. While commissioners sought to soothe conflicts, both present and future, regarding noise, passionate aviators felt that their lifestyles were under threat.
Many of the people who spoke have lived in Grand County for decades; two speakers said they recently moved to the area specifically to enjoy freedom from regulation. Balloon pilot Adam Bishop said he came to Moab from California to escape the tight restrictions in that state.
“Once it starts, it gets worse and worse and worse, and your restrictions become very restrictive,” Bishop said.
Grand County resident and well-known outdoor athlete Steph Davis spoke at the meeting to say she supports the rights of all public land users, even user groups she finds “extremely annoying.”
“I am one person out of 8 billion people on this planet, and everyone else has an equal right to be here,” Davis said.
Dave Werschsky, a ten-year Moab resident active in aviation and aerial sports, brought up several concerns that were shared by many other speakers at the meeting.
“The wording in this proposition is, honestly, pretty scary to me, because it’s very loose and vague. And it looks like a very slippery slope,” Werschsky said. He thinks the proposal would leave the door open for more restrictions—which, he feels, would negatively change the character of Moab.
“Moab is very unique in the world, as far as what access we do have and what we can do here legally,” Werschky said. “The only other place that has an aviation community like Moab is Alaska.”
That community was evident at the meeting, where various speakers described how they love ballooning, paramotoring, BASE jumping, skydiving, backcountry flying, and reaching remote camping and backpacking destinations by plane. (The proposed ordinance would only have applied to motorized aircraft, so would not have restricted balloons or BASE jumpers).
In addition to the broad wording, Werschsky was alarmed by the pace at which the proposal came up for a vote.
“Something that is really concerning to me is that it was publicly brought up on Saturday to be voted on on Tuesday,” he said. “And that, to me, is terrifying in government.”
Many commenters asked for more specifics on the noise complaints cited in the draft ordinance and that the county take the time to work with user groups on addressing any noise issues.
Mike Ortiz, one of the owners of Moab-based helicopter tour company Heli X, read from Federal Aviation Administration regulations that limit flight over congested areas, suggesting that the county look to those and other existing rules to address any issues.
“These are FAA rules, so there’s something to work with,” Ortiz proposed.
Director of the Utah Division of Aeronautics Jared Esselman came to the meeting in person to comment, saying that his office had not been formally contacted about the proposed new rule, but that he’d heard about it “through the grapevine.” Esselman manages the state aviation system, which, he noted, includes 25 airstrips in Grand County.
“We request that you coordinate with us on things that specifically impact pilots, aircraft and airports, like this amendment does,” Essleman said.
Esselman also said his office collects data on noise complaints, and asked to see Grand County’s data on the same. In a followup call with the Moab Sun News, he said his office has only received a few complaints from Grand County, all related to the airport.
Esselman told the Moab Sun News that state residents can call his office with concerns about aircraft and staff can track flight paths. For example, if a plane flies low over a home, the resident can report the time and location and the Division of Aeronautics can determine the speed and altitude of the aircraft, as well as who it is registered to. If there are repeated problems in an area, the division can implement noise mitigation programs—essentially, maps and education for aviators on where to avoid flying. He acknowledged that the system doesn’t track crafts that don’t have an Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast device (ADS-B) or a transponder—paramotorists, for example, would likely not have either of these.
“There’s lots of ways to educate the public on where to fly and how to fly,” Esselman said. He was disappointed that Grand County didn’t contact the Division of Aeronautics.
Jodi Patterson, chair of the Airport Board, weighed in at the meeting, saying that if more types of aircraft, particularly small aircraft, were relocated from backcountry areas to the airport, it could cause congestion, safety issues, and an increased burden on airport staff.
Wendy Lessig, the Utah liaison for the nonprofit Recreational Aviation Foundation, attended the meeting in person as well.
“I would like to see more information about the noise, and where, when [complaints were made] just like other people have expressed,” Lessig said. “I believe that we’re on the same page—we want to work together. In the 20 years of the RAF’s existence, we’ve built our reputation on working cooperatively with government agencies and private entities and pilot groups. And I think that we can work together to resolve the noise issue.”
Roy Evans, president of the Utah Backcountry Pilots Association, also urged the commission to invite stakeholders to collaborate on addressing the noise issues.
Ben Burr, executive director of the BlueRibbon Coalition, told the commission about how his grandfather grew up in Moab and had a long career in aviation. Burr said that many pilots who provide services like commercial flights, search and rescue, or industrial aviation, also enjoy recreational flying.
“I think it sends a really terrible message to this group of folks that provide valuable services, to pass this ordinance,” Burr said.
Commission Chair Jacques Hadler had to cap the comments in order to get to other agenda items, but commissioners were persuaded by the discussion that more outreach was needed, and that another approach might be better received.
“I, for one, want to say thank you, because you helped us move forward in a more positive way,” Commissioner McGann told members of the public who shared their views.
Commissioner Kevin Walker gave further background on the evolution of the proposed amendment. In frequent communications between the county and the BLM, he said,
“One of the things that has come up repeatedly over the past few years has been aircraft issues, and in particular where they land.”
Facing increasing complaints about noise, the commission asked the BLM what the agency’s policy was on aircraft; after some confusion, the BLM told the commission that there wasn’t any policy on aircraft, according to Walker. The BLM was not able to provide more information before press time.
“What happens when the BLM is silent on an issue—they’re not permitting it and they’re not prohibiting it?” Walker asked.
Federal laws override policies of smaller entities, but in the absence of a federal rule, the county can regulate (though it does not have authority over airspace—only what happens on the ground). In 1994, Grand County created a policy in the land use code saying scenic air tours had to operate out of the airport; that rule only applies to private land. The rule has many exceptions: for example, seismic exploration, permitted filming, and search and rescue. The proposed Title 17 amendment would extend the policy to the whole county and address new types of aircraft that didn’t exist in 1994; but, even if passed, it would only come into play if the BLM continued to avoid making any policy of its own.
“Before this proposal would have an effect, the BLM would actually have to agree with the legal reasoning,” Walker said. “Nothing was expected to happen soon.”
Commissioners suggested that rather than amending Title 17, they could write a letter to the BLM asking the agency to clarify its policy and take some action to address noise complaints. They voted to postpone the amendment, with the understanding that they don’t intend to bring it up again in its current format; they asked county staff to make a note of the organizations that asked to be part of the conversation so they could arrange further discussion.