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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Moab And Grand County Pass New Noise Limits To Deal With ATV Complaints

A line of ATVs drive down a street in Moab
Kate Groetzinger
All-terrain vehicles are street-legal in Utah, except in Salt Lake County, due to a state law passed in 2015.

Grand County and Moab both recently passed new noise ordinances to deal with all-terrain vehicles. The changes were prompted by hundreds of complaints from residents, who say the sound of ATVs is disrupting their lives.

Local officials have been trying to get a handle on the issue for months now. The vehicles are street-legal everywhere in Utah, except Salt Lake County, so neither the city nor county can ban them. Efforts to impose a curfew on their use in Moab failed in the state Legislature earlier this year.

“If we were like Colorado, for example, then we would only have to do one thing, and then we would be done,” said Grand County Commissioner Kevin Walker. “But instead, the Utah Legislature has told us to do it the hard way, via enforcing local noise ordinances and other similar things.”

The county ordinance passed on April 20 and says ATVs cannot be louder than 92 decibels, when measured 20 inches from the tailpipe of a stationary one that is revving its engine. The same conditions apply for all other vehicles under 9,000 pounds. Since that test can only be done once a vehicle has stopped, the ordinance specifies the limit is equivalent to 80 decibels when measured 25 feet from the tailpipe of a moving vehicle.

The county plans to use the drive-by test to screen vehicles, and then apply the stationary test roadside if someone violates the drive-by test, according to County Attorney Christina Sloan.

Moab passed a similar ordinance Tuesday night. Both specify a slightly lower noise limit at night.

The city and county have both purchased sound meters that law enforcement can use to enforce the new ordinances, according to Walker. But he said the new ordinances are unlikely to fully address the noise problem, since 80 decibels is still pretty loud.

A chart from Purdue University says 80 decibels is equivalent to the sound of a freight trainmeasured from 50 feet away and that eight hours of exposure to 80 decibel noise can cause hearing loss.

“The noise ordinance may very well need to be strengthened in the future, if it’s not making our streets quieter,” Walker said.

The county commission plans to look at the issue again in January.

Meanwhile, off-roading advocates said the noise limit in the ordinance may be too low. They were asking the city and county to go with a limit of 96 decibels, measured 20 inches from the tailpipe of a stationary ATV.

Ben Burr is with the BlueRibbon Coalition, a group that advocates for motorized recreation. He said the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies already use the 96 decibel limit, so it makes sense for Moab to adopt it.

“We don’t want a patchwork of rules, where people who are doing something that should be legal are getting fines from a city government because they’ve created something for a group of people who are not lawbreakers,” Burr said.

He said the current limit could be low enough that people driving regular, street-legal ATVs through town end up violating the ordinance. In fact, the county noise ordinance states that “most street-legal ATVs in the state of Utah produce decibel levels louder than 92 dBA ... ”

“If you go buy a [stock] machine … off the lot, we don't want you to become a criminal in Moab because of that action,” Burr said.

Burr said his group may ask state lawmakers to pass a statewide noise ordinance to pre-empt the local ones, if people get in trouble for making too much noise in stock ATVs. Both Grand County and Moab said they will focus on education for the first year the ordinance is in place, and will only write tickets in “egregious” situations.

The county is planning to hold a voluntary noise-testing event for all ATV users at Sand Flats Recreation Area on May 29.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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