Why noise from off-road vehicles is making life miserable in Moab

The racket hits at all hours and is disrupting life in this Utah resort town, but state lawmakers have defeated an attempt to offer some relief.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) An off-road utility terrain vehicle (UTV) motors up Fins & Things 4x4 Trail at the Sand Flats Recreation Area trail, located just 4 miles from downtown Moab, Feb. 19, 2021.

Moab • The planets had aligned for Anthony Charles.

In the span of 10 days last May, his wife, Didar, gave birth to their first child, and the couple moved into a new house in Moab with their name on the title, another first.

The 41-year-old didn’t know if he’d ever own a home in his hometown, where nightly rentals and second-home owners have driven prices so far they felt out of reach. Charles and his family were overjoyed as they settled into the energy-efficient house with nearly 2-foot-thick straw-bale walls on the eastern edge of the mining town turned tourist haven.

Their serenity was soon eclipsed, however, by an unrelenting, at-all-hours din.

The house is on Mill Creek Drive, the main route to the popular Sand Flats Recreation Area, where world-famous mountain bike and four-wheel-drive trails snake through the slickrock formations just above this city of 5,400 residents.

Every day from May until November, dozens of off-road utility terrain vehicles (UTVs), many driven by tourists looking for an outdoor escape from the coronavirus pandemic, motored uphill past his house, the whine of their engines cutting through the walls at all hours, often waking his infant son.

“I’m trying to feed my baby,” he said, “and get him back to sleep after 20 UTVs came roaring by and woke him. I feed him to sleep, and then another 20 of them come raring down. It made me stress so hard that I’ve chipped my teeth.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Moab native Anthony Charles, holding his son, Winter, 9 months, struggles with the noise of off-road utility terrain vehicles (UTVs) since he and his wife moved into their new home on Mill Creek Drive in May 2020.

Charles is hardly alone in feeling the noise from UTV traffic in residential neighborhoods across Moab has hampered the quality of life, especially as the machines have exploded in popularity over the past few years. Responding to the grassroots uproar, the Moab City Council and Grand County Commission imposed a temporary moratorium on new UTV rental and tour businesses in October and lowered speed limits for off-highway vehicles.

But there is only so much local officials can do. A state law passed in 2015 explicitly prohibits counties and cities from banning or restricting off-highway vehicle use on streets open to other motorized traffic, and a bipartisan effort to amend the law stalled Wednesday in the Utah Senate.

It comes as no surprise to Charles — whose grandfather was an early promoter of Moab’s popular Jeep Safari more than half a century ago — that the corner where his new house is located is busy with off-road traffic, but he didn’t know just how invasive the racket would be. While his thick plastered walls block car noises, he said, some sounds bleed through when a truck or a small group of UTVs passes.

Those are bearable. But the rumbling amps up when a dozen or more of those off-highway vehicles thunder by in a pack — an increasingly common occurrence.

“I’ve counted over 70 UTVs when five groups [happened to converge],” he said. “With those UTVs, there’s just something about the noise that pierces right through the house.”

The raucous caravans are often out late on “night adventures,” Charles said, with groups of riders returning from the trails after midnight throughout the height of the tourist season in the spring and fall. Others motor by before dawn to catch the sunrise.

A revolution in off-road travel

Over the summer, Charles, who had faced only minor health problems before, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, the symptoms of which are exacerbated by noise exposure, according to several studies. He is working with physicians to establish the noise as a public health hazard.

Other residents complain about having to keep their windows shut and of having conversations drowned out in their yards. Some report being awakened by late-night “drag races” through neighborhoods or having driveways and sidewalks blocked. The benches outside Dave’s Corner Market, also on Mill Creek Drive, were once a social gathering spot. Now they mostly sit empty.

Some longtime residents have left town or are considering leaving — as was documented in an hourlong radio show produced by locals Jon and Josie Kovash in October. The program collected stories from more than a dozen residents who characterized the noise as a citywide crisis. Josie noted that the decibel readings inside her home from passing UTVs are just as loud as “my 5-month-old daughter crying full throttle in the same room.”

“It’s just so invasive,” said Lucy Wallingford, who has lived in the same Moab neighborhood, located a mile from Charles’, since the early 1980s. She said the noise has only become a major issue in the past several years.

If there’s UTV traffic in the backcountry, you can go somewhere else to hike, Wallingford said. “But there’s nothing you can do about noise penetrating your home. That’s where you live.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) An off-road utility terrain vehicle (UTV) motors down 100 South in downtown Moab, Feb. 19, 2021.

A petition demanding action from local and state officials called Make Moab Quiet Again has amassed nearly 3,700 signatures since last fall, and the group behind the petition compiled nearly two dozen recent letters to the editor, which used terms like “dreaded drone,” “public nuisance” and “screaming fast” to describe the UTV traffic.

“The noise made by residents on the noise issue is louder than the sound of the ATVs driving by my house,” said Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus. “It’s that important to them.”

The City Council’s options are limited by the 2015 state law sponsored by then-Rep. Mike Noel — a Kanab Republican and an avid off-highway vehicle supporter — that bars local governments from restricting off-highway vehicles on city or county streets limits. Tour operators and rental companies in Moab, as well as off-road advocacy groups, fear changes to the law would dent the rights of riders and the pocketbooks of business owners.

Off-highway vehicles have been street legal in parts of Utah for more than a decade, but the restrictions on local control passed just as UTVs, also known as side by sides, began to swell in popularity. Unlike four-wheelers or dirt bikes, which have a higher barrier to entry for many first-time riders, UTVs seat up to four people and are driven with a steering wheel and gas pedal, not a throttle and handlebars. They are easier to operate and have, according to one business owner, “revolutionized off-road travel” in Moab, the “off-road capital of the world.”

Like many lawn mowers, the exposed engines on UTVs can make them louder than a car or truck, even during normal operation. After-market mufflers, designed to rev the machines even louder, can add to the cacophony.

Since Noel’s law took hold, street-legal registrations for off-highway vehicles in Utah have skyrocketed, jumping by more than 320% over five years. Some of Grand County’s nearly 10,000 residents are off-road enthusiasts as well, and over 600 street-legal off-road machines were registered in the county last year.

Meanwhile, Moab has seen visitation soar, with nearly 5 million outsiders venturing to the resort town every year.

From 2009 to 2019, overall visitation to the nearby Sand Flats Recreation Area shot up by more than 72%, according to director Andrea Brand. While traffic to Sand Flats slipped by 22% in 2020 due to pandemic-related closures, the Hell’s Revenge four-wheel-drive trail, popular with UTV riders, saw an increase in total use last year. The Bureau of Land Management reported similar traffic trends for popular off-road routes near Moab.

The battle over local control

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) An off-road utility terrain vehicle (UTV) eases up Hell's Revenge 4x4 Trail at the Sand Flats Recreation Area near Moab, Feb. 19, 2021.

Noise ordinances for vehicles are difficult to enforce, even when they carry after-market mufflers. And an educational campaign urging residents to “Throttle Down in Town” as well as the posting of lower speed limits have yet to sufficiently address the problem, say Niehaus and others.

“When any one user group has total permission to do their sport at all times in all places,” Niehaus said, “we’re going to have user conflict. And, in this case, that user conflict has made its way into the city.”

Moab officials briefly considered passing fleet limit restrictions on businesses earlier this month but decided instead to focus on modifying Noel’s law.

The mayor found an ally in Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, whom she met while she was opposing a failed bill he sponsored in a previous session that would have limited municipalities’ ability to ban plastic bags.

“It’s a very unlikely relationship,” she said, “but we were able to develop it because he was reasonable, and I was reasonable.”

McKell sponsored a bill that would have modified the 2015 law and allowed a handful of legally defined Utah resort communities to adopt nighttime restrictions on off-highway vehicle traffic on city streets between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

But it fell just short in a 15-14 vote Wednesday.

Niehaus and McKell had emphasized the legislation was developed with balance and compromise in mind.

“We couldn’t ask for less,” the mayor said of the bill’s limited scope before it was defeated. “If it doesn’t even pass the Senate, for me, it is a clear signal that our legislators are putting recreation in front of residents.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus found an ally in Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, regarding UTV noise in Moab. Niehaus holds a photograph of her guiding Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, his wife and two children and Sen. McKell and his wife, Brandi. down the Colorado River last fall. Niehaus has the picture on display at her city office, Feb. 19, 2021. McKell is sponsoring a bill that would allow Moab and other resort communities to adopt nighttime restrictions on off-highway vehicle traffic on city streets.

The legislation met strong opposition from off-highway vehicle advocates. Bud Bruening, president of UTV Utah, argued the bill discriminated against a certain user group and was being pushed by people who want to see a total ban on street-legal off-highway vehicles.

“If there’s a problem, we want to fix it,” said Bruening, who lives in Salt Lake City and enjoys recreating in Moab. “We don’t want to be looked at as the bad people that are out there terrorizing neighborhoods, because that’s the furthest from the truth.”

Bruening argued Moab and Grand County officials did not sufficiently work with UTV groups to craft a compromise, which he suggested could include more signs, training and pamphlets to educate users on the issues as well as efforts to empower law enforcement to ticket machines that violate noise ordinances.

Changing Utah law to allow a nighttime ban on certain city streets, which municipalities are allowed to impose in most U.S. states, was a nonstarter for Bruening. “It would be no different than if we said, ‘Honda Civics cannot be driven at midnight.’”

UTV Utah — which describes itself as the state’s largest group of off-road enthusiasts — photo-edited a Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance baseball cap onto McKell, indicating the Republican is secretly a supporter of the environmental group.

The group also listed the phone number for the law firm where McKell works, and the lawmaker said it’s “extremely problematic” that the office’s staffers had to field calls from bill opponents.

“I don’t think [UTV Utah’s] criticisms are fair, and I certainly don’t think their criticisms are accurate,” McKell said before Wednesday’s vote. “For those opposing the bill, the question I would have is: Do you intend to ride your OHV in residential neighborhoods in the middle of the night in Moab?”

Kent Green, a 64-year-old area guide who runs the tour company Moab Cowboy Country Offroad Adventures, shares many of Bruening’s concerns — that the ultimate goal of UTV critics is to impose a blanket ban on the vehicles in Moab, which would force off-highway enthusiasts to drive their machines to cramped trailheads on trailers.

Green has been outspoken at recent city, county and state meetings on the noise debate. But, unlike Bruening, Green backed McKell’s amended legislation that would have allowed the city to limit off-highway vehicle use between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

“I would support that,” Green said, “and so would a lot of [UTV] users throughout the state.”

A seven-hour window for restrictions would have allowed Green to continue to guide sunset tours, which often involve leading a group of UTVs from his office in downtown Moab through residential neighborhoods to the Sand Flats Recreation Area, located a half-mile from Moab’s city limits.

Additionally, Green has been a supporter of the “throttle down” campaign and said he would like to see more noise ordinance enforcement in town.

“We need to give the tools to law enforcement to just pull you over if you have a loud, obnoxious machine,” he said, acknowledging that current rules make it difficult to prove vehicular noise ordinance violations in court. “It’s pretty dang hard [right now] to be able to pull them over for that.”

Economic tug of war

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Thrill-seekers driving off-road utility terrain vehicles (UTVs) rented from Moab Tour Company lreave the parking lot on Main Street to head toward the nearby Sand Flats Recreation Area, Feb. 19, 2021.

Green said critics should recognize the benefits that the UTV community brings to Moab as well.

“The off-road enthusiast spends a lot of money,” he said. “I would dare say anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a day.”

A full-day UTV rental costs nearly $500 and is taxed at 18.25%, according to the Moab Sun News. A three-hour tour with Green’s company starts at $330.

But Bill Groff — who opened Rim Cyclery, Moab’s first mountain bike shop, in 1983 — warns that the area’s growing reputation as a destination for motorized users is driving away other recreation groups.

“A lot of my customers have said they’re not coming back because of the UTVs,” he said, “hikers, bikers — everybody that comes down here for the serene countryside and the beautiful, spectacular landscape.”

Groff, who has lived in the same house along Mill Creek Drive since 1974, said the noise has become so much of a problem that it’s hard to chat with friends in his backyard.

“Moab is like a go-kart track to [tourists],” he said. “Over the last few years, the traffic has grown exponentially.”

Wallingford and others said the proliferating off-road rental and tour companies — there are more than a dozen in Moab — are a big part of the noise problem, but Niehaus pushed back on that notion.

“If we just had rentals and guided tours, we’d be in a very different place because that’s what we did have,” Niehaus said. “That segment of the industry has not really expanded all that much.”

The mayor added that even though McKell’s bill failed, she was encouraged there was bipartisan support for giving some local control back to communities, including a yes vote from Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton.

“What is most clear is that Moab must continue to tell her story,” Niehaus said. “When we tell our story, people listen.”

The next step for the city, she added, will be an expanded effort to enforce noise ordinances.

For his part, Charles is considering launching a working group to find a permanent fix for UTV users, Moab residents and business owners, which he believes may require building a new entrance to Sand Flats.

In the meantime, he’s relying on temporary solutions. Many of the off-road riders wear ear protection, and Charles often puts on noise-canceling headphones — inside his new house.

“I shouldn’t have to buy all that,” he said, “to sit on my couch.”

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.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Moab, a town of 5,400 residents, swells by the thousands week to week from May to November as tourists visit Arches National Park and outdoor enthusiasts arrive to hike, bike, camp, 4x4 and run the Colorado River, Feb. 19, 2021.