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Moab grapples with housing costs, off-highway vehicle noise in crowded mayoral race

The southeastern Utah city will participate in a pilot ranked choice voting program.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Several off-road utility terrain vehicles (UTVs) motor down Main Street in Moab towards the Sand Flats Recreation Area trail, located just 4 miles from downtown, Feb. 19, 2021.

Moab residents will elect a new mayor and fill two city council seats on Tuesday, choosing from a packed field of candidates who have pledged to respond to impacts associated with the city’s booming tourism industry.

There are no incumbents in the race, and Moab opted into Utah’s pilot ranked choice voting system, which advocates say will allow voters to pick their favorite candidate without fear of backing a spoiler.

Alison Harford, a reporter for the Moab Sun News who interviewed each of the six candidates for mayor and the six candidates running for city council slots, said the shortage of affordable housing in town and concerns about off-highway vehicle (OHV) traffic on city streets are the leading issues in the election.

“Everyone’s talking about affordable housing in Moab because it is an issue that you can’t ignore,” Harford said. Moab’s real estate prices skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic and long-term rental options have long been a concern.

Outgoing Mayor Emily Niehaus, an affordable housing advocate, worked with the city council to reign in short-term rentals in the city during her time in office, but housing shortages have persisted. Harford said that while most candidates list housing as a top priority, few concrete plans to address the issue have been announced.

The second area of focus in the election involves an explosion of OHV rental companies in the area, which many residents say is adding to noise, traffic and safety issues in the tourist town.

There are two owners of four-wheel-drive vehicle rental companies on the ballot — Kent Green and Jason Taylor. Outspoken activists Anthony Charles and Josie Kovash have pledged to work on limiting OHV use on city streets and in residential neighborhoods, primarily due to noise concerns.

The tension between the disruptiveness of OHV traffic and the revenue it brings into the city is on display in the race. “A couple of the candidates talked about how we need to address [OHV] noise while also keeping to a staple of our economy because it brings in a ton of money,” Harford said.

The local Democratic Party is backing Joette Langianese for mayor, who previously served on the Grand County Council and is the executive director of Friends of Arches and Canyonlands. She has emphasized her experience as a facilitator.

Bill Winfield, who runs a local construction company and said that experience will help him build more affordable housing, has run an extensive door-knocking campaign. The two are seen as the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, according to Harford.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021.

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.

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