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Are ATVs A Noisy Nuisance Or A Right?
New Crawford Law Points Up Divergent Views

REGIONAL – The passage of a new local law in the Town of Crawford provided a stark divergence of views over loud machines such as all terrain vehicles.

At its March 20 board meeting, supervisor Charles Carnes, in effect, re-opened a public hearing from the previous month's meeting to allow more voices to be heard. And this time around it was the views of the ATV riding public that came to the fore, diametrically opposite to those of the anti-ATV population heard in February. The two sides represent two fundamentally different views of the rural countryside and private property issues tied to it.

Say you bought property up here in the Hudson Valley, perhaps in Pine Bush or further up in Gardiner or up in the Cape in Wawarsing, and you brought your family and your ATVs to have fun on it because you love to ride, and you love to ride in circles in your own backyard. And you're having a great time, riding, and you ride for hours every day, whenever you can.

Or, say, you bought property up here, perhaps right next door to someone who loves to ride every day, but you came here for the natural beauty, the peace and quiet, the sounds of birds and the wind. And you're sitting out on your deck and all you can hear is the steady engine sounds of those neighbors on their ATVs.

Variations on this struggle can be found at lakes where personal "watercraft" are banned, and in legal restrictions on ATV noise in California and the Oregon sand dunes, as well as a growing swath of New York state and the entire Northeast.

"Now you're going to tell me I can't ride my ATV on my own property!" said one incredulous objector at the Crawford meeting.

Match that statement up with those from the previous month, where people lamented that they were unable to fully enjoy their property because of noise pollution from their neighbors.

Carnes, and other board members, made two points... several times. The new law is not intended to shut down anyone's use of an ATV for everyday tasks like collecting brush, pulling a cart, moving stuff around. Nor is the new law going to target lawn mowers, which can be just as loud as ATVs. The law is an attempt to settle a problem which Carnes exemplified as what happens "when you have a few bad apples who spoil it for everyone else."

That second point was one that he and board member Mike Menendez returned to several times during the meeting. The reason that the town had agreed to come up with a new law is due to a small number of ATV riders whose love of riding in their backyards has become a real nuisance to their neighbors. Those neighbors petitioned the town to do something because they felt they were enduring noisy machines far too often and for far too long.

And, in addition to being unable to enjoy the country air on their deck, some residents have found that their horses are upset by ATV noise and reported that this can even have an effect on the health of such animals. Not every horse, mind; some take it all in stride even while those who react badly can suffer.

Stepping out onto this legal terrain is not easy. Some towns in our region have noise ordinances; Wawarsing has one, for instance. Others, like Rochester, do not. Carnes and the board had investigated several such as Montgomery, whose noise ordinance had a cut off at 60 decibels. Initially, the Crawford law was to be set for a 70 decibel cut off. However, during the meeting, several ATV riders and racers explained that their machines come from the showroom with louder decibel ratings than 70.

After hearing this, the board discussed the matter and made a change in the new law, raising the decibel limit in the Crawford law to 80.

To put that in perspective, here are some other noisy activities, rated by their decibel output... A full 75 piece orchestra can hit 130 decibels. A car horn is rated at 110. Lawn mowers can clock 85, city traffic 70, a dishwasher 60 and rustling leaves, 40.

Of course it is possible to put an ATV stealth exhaust system on such offending vehicles. Such systems cost from $150 to $250 and will reduce the noise from an ATV by 50 to 60 percent.

If an ATV with an 80 decibel output can be reduced to the sound of rustling leaves, that might solve many neighborhood problems. However, some ATV riders will cheerfully admit that making a lot of noise is an integral part of their fun; letting out the throttle and hearing the engine respond with a throaty roar as they head for the next jump is what it's all about.

Meanwhile their neighbor next door is either calling the police, contemplating suicide, or perhaps murder.

Anne O'Dell, general manager of the New York State Snowmobile Association, resides in the area and has attended the Crawford meetings, concerned that snowmobiles might be included in the regulations. However, the law as written covers dirt bikes and their relatives "go-karts," all terrain vehicles, trikes, quads, dune buggies and even "golf carts." But not snowmobiles, because as Carnes has said before, they are covered by a separate state law.

Apparently golf carts can be revved up as racing machines with attendant noise.

O'Dell made some interesting points about this issue.

"Snowmobiles cause less of a problem because they're used in winter when we have the windows closed," she pointed out. "Also, snowmobilers are usually going somewhere; we ride the trails from place to place, stop and get warm, and don't just go around that much on one piece of property. There are 10,500 miles of insured snowmobile trails in New York State, paid for, by the way, with snowmobile registration money, not taxpayer dollars. But for ATVs? Almost nothing... there are very few legal places to ride ATVs in New York in spite of years of lobbying by ATV users and the manufacturers."

The new law will require Crawford police to obtain and use decibel meters. This is not something they are looking forward to. Indeed, some observers note that it is very difficult to write successful noise ordinance laws and to enforce them. Most people don't own decibel meters and can often claim in court that they simply didn't know their machine had gone over the limit.

Some suggest that instead of decibel limits it is more practical from a legal point of view to simply disallow a certain kind of noise in a zoning district at certain times of day and night. Thus, on weekends, ATVs might be allowed between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., but not at other times. Exceptions for lawnmowers and snowblowers can be written into such laws, of course, and farm machinery can be exempted, another concern that often weighs on local town boards when confronted with noise issues.

Mike Menendez summed up the town board's views succinctly.

"Law enforcement deals in evidence. Use ATVs properly and you've got nothing to worry about," he said. "We do not want to have more laws, but we have to protect ALL citizens in this town."

In the meantime, ATV riders can keep the peace by fitting their machines with stealth exhaust systems and let their neighbors enjoy their property, too.

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