Moab residents sound off against OHV noise. Lawmakers listen, advance bill that may silence the vehicles at night.

Measure would empower resort towns to pass time limits; debate hinges on “local control.”

(Murice D. Miller | Special to The Tribune) Millions of visitors flock to Moab every year, and city and county officials said they're receiving a flood of complaints about noise from off-highway vehicles on city streets.

When state Sen. Jacob Anderegg and his family visited Moab in October, they were unable to sleep in during their vacation.

One morning at 5 a.m., two dozen two-stroke cycles came roaring down Main Street, the Lehi Republican told his colleagues on the Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy, and Technology Committee on Monday for a hearing that advanced SB168, a bill that would allow certain municipalities in Utah to limit the nighttime use of off-highway vehicles.

“They are very loud,” he said. “It woke my whole family up.”

Throughout his stay, Anderegg — who referred to himself as “a four-wheeler” and said he makes several trips to Moab annually to recreate — saw 20 similarly noisy groups of OHVs at a time of year when the tourist season is typically starting to die down.

Full-time residents of the 5,400-person town in southeast Utah who spoke at the committee hearing said Anderegg’s experience was no aberration. Some described not being able to open their windows on summer nights. Others recounted regular disruptions to their children’s sleep schedule.

“My windows actually shake from the noise dozens of times a day as convoys up to 30 vehicles long drive by, many at high speeds,” said Chloe Hedden, who launched a petition called Make Moab Quiet Again urging officials to respond to the noise. It has 3,700 signatures, she said.

“I was born and raised in Moab,” Hedden added, “and I can tell you I’ve never seen people here so upset or unified about an issue.”

Anderegg’s recent trip pushed him to support advancing the measure — sponsored by Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork — out of the committee Monday. The current version would allow 18 legally defined “resort communities” in Utah, including Moab, to craft ordinances limiting OHV use on city streets from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.

“Had I not experienced this myself this last October,” Anderegg said, “I would most likely be voting against this bill because that’s how I feel about access and not restricting it.”

Under current state law, municipalities and counties are not allowed to prohibit or restrict the use of street-legal OHVs on city or county roads, which Grand County and Moab officials say hampers their ability to address the noise complaints. Previous attempts to respond to the issue through education campaigns and lower speed limits were ineffective, multiple officials reported.

Bill proponents said it would advance local governments’ ability to solve problems in their communities. “I’ll vote for [the bill],” said Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, “because I believe in local control.”

Opponents called it “discriminatory,” arguing it would lead to clogged trailheads and expressed fears that it could be used as a step toward a complete ban on OHV use in Moab.

“This bill does nothing to solve the problem,” said Piute County Commissioner Darin Bushman, a Republican. “And what it really does … is it discriminates against a certain class of recreationists that have been painted as poor stewards.”

Two employees of the pro-recreation BlueRibbon Coalition made the case that local governments aren’t inherently virtuous. Ben Burr, the coalition’s policy director, referenced a recent article in Rolling Stone magazine about a stretch of highway in Afghanistan that’s overwhelmed with lawlessness, including kidnappings and murders.

An Afghan mayor profiled in the article, Burr said, “has survived her car being sprayed with bullets by the world’s most committed supporters of local control, who would be the Taliban.”

Burr added that many military veterans enjoy off-highway recreation and that the bill would harm those users. “It is disappointing that the leaders of Moab who have petitioned for this bill have refused to understand the off-road community on its own terms,” he said. “Instead of starting from a point of inclusiveness and understanding, they have chosen to start from a point of control and discrimination in a way that is hurtful to veterans, the mobility-impaired and families.”

Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, noted that the bill has “strong guardrails” to keep it from being abused. It allows local governments only in a small number of resort communities to design their own nighttime restrictions, which would not apply to state highways.

Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus called the bill a “compromise” that can “can help us in the city mitigate noise at night while also supporting our industry.”

“It’s my job to protect my community,” she said. “To me, this includes my community members deeply frustrated with the increasing noise levels in our residential neighborhoods as well as my neighbors that own ATVs for recreation, my friends that own ATV-related businesses that take visitors out on tours or rent them for visitors to explore on their own, and, finally, and most importantly in this discussion, my law enforcement officers that are asked to shoulder the very difficult logistical and financial burden of noise enforcement.”

Limiting the hours that OHVs are allowed to operate on city streets would be much easier to enforce than a noise ordinance, Niehaus said.

The bill advanced out of the committee with a 5-2 vote, though several lawmakers who supported it, including Anderegg, said they want to see changes such as possibly modifying the language to allow OHV restrictions only between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.