June 2006

Locals debate merits of motorcycle rally

By Gail Binkly

It’s sort of a good-news, bad-news situation.

The good news is that tens of thousands of bikers may converge on Montezuma County over the Labor Day weekend, spending money freely and swelling sales-tax coffers. The bad news is that tens of thousands of bikers may converge on Montezuma County over the Labor Day weekend, clogging traffic, straining law-enforcement agencies, and making an ear-splitting racket.MOTORCYCLE RALLY

Five years after the county said no to the Iron Horse Motorcycle Rally, it now has the option to welcome a different but equally thunderous gathering, the Four Corners Rally in the Rockies. Organizers of Rally in the Rockies — which has in the past been centered in Ignacio — now want to move the event to Echo Basin Ranch 5 miles northeast of Mancos. About 160 acres of the ranch would become the site for concerts, camping, vendor booths, beer gardens, bull-riding, biker rodeos and other motorcycle-oriented activities, from Aug. 30 through Sept. 4.

Dan and Kathy Bjorkman, owners of Echo Basin, have applied for a highimpact permit from the county for the event for 2006.

On May 25, the Montezuma County Planning Commission approved sending the permit application on to the county commissioners with several recommendations designed to lessen the rally’s adverse impacts.

The county commissioners will have a public hearing on the application on Monday, June 19, at 1:30 p.m. A public hearing on the Bjorkman concerts is set for the same day at 3:30.

‘Unbelievable support’

Back in March of 2001, the thencounty commissioners rejected a request from organizers of the Iron Horse Motorcycle Rally to move that event, which brought some 20,000 to 30,000 cyclists to the area over Labor Day, from Ignacio to the Montezuma County Fairgrounds.

The commissioners cited concerns about public safety, noise, traffic congestion and the strain on public services in turning down the request. The Iron Horse rally eventually moved to Loveland, Colo.

Rally in the Rockies has since been gathering in Ignacio every Labor Day holiday, but this year there was a falling-out with the Southern Ute tribe, and the group started looking for another venue.

In April, Dan Bradshaw, director of the rally for the past four years, approached the Montezuma County commissioners about using Echo Basin as a site for the rally’s camping and live music concerts, with other activities to be located elsewhere.

But by May 25, he and Dan Bjorkman were seeking to have the entire event at Echo Basin.

“I think there’s been an unbelievable amount of support for this event,” Dan Bjorkman told the planning commission. “It’s something the community has embraced.” But neighbors of Echo Basin aren’t so sure.

“We just stand to lose everything and gain nothing,” said Sue Jackson, who lives on County Road M.3.

Traffic count

Bradshaw said he is dedicated to providing a safe, professional rally. “In the four years we’ve been doing the event we haven’t had one motorcycle death in the rally,” he said.

But there are concerns about the Echo Basin site, a fact that was reflected in the recommendations the planning commission made.

Echo Basin is reached by turning off U.S. Highway 160 about 3 miles east of Mancos onto County Road 44, then following the winding road some 3 miles to the north and onto Road M.

Road 44 is chip-sealed, but is a narrow two-lane road, unmarked, with no shoulders and some sharp turns. These concerns prompted the planning commission to recommend that the promoters widen Road 44 — something the board admitted probably isn’t feasible before Labor Day 2006.

Bradshaw believes the road is adequate. told the Free Press he doesn’t think the rally or Bjorkman will be willing to pay to improve the road.

“That’s why we pay taxes,” he said.

“Dan pays $50,000 in taxes. I’m going to pay $30,000 in sales tax this year. We’ve offered to do fundraisers to raise money to help pay for that road, but right now I take my motorcoach down it, and I’ve met a big truck pulling a horse trailer and it didn’t seem to be a problem. Yet one motorcycle going one way and one the other way is supposed to be more dangerous? I’m bewildered by that.”

The noise factor

Just how noisy is a motorcycle?

Federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations supposedly limit noise levels to 80 decibels for on-highway bikes, 82 decibels for off-road bikes and 78 decibels for automobiles, according to an article published by the Motorcycle Riders Foundation.

But an informal study by University of Florida audiologists found that half of the motorcycles they looked at produced sounds above 100 decibels when throttled up, a noise level equivalent to a chainsaw or rock concert.

According to bikernet.com, an independent motorcycle-noise study found that a 2003 Harley-Davidson Road King Classic, 1400 cc with “mild modifications and a full Screamin’ Eagle 2-into-1 Exhaust System” emitted 100 decibels at idle and 116 decibels fully revved. A custom 1956 Harley, 1488 cc, can be even noisier, emitting 124 decibels when revved. Passenger cars are usually in the 78-83 decibel range, while trucks and semis can be as loud as 100 decibels.

Bikers generally oppose noise restrictions, maintaining the sound is necessary to make sure that other drivers are aware of them. Because they are not protected by a truck or car cab, bikers are uniquely vulnerable, and motorcycles can be hard to see. However, noise-pollution critics say bikers make so much noise they themselves can’t hear other vehicles or sirens.

“There is no study on record or correlation between the noise level of a motorcycle and its ability to reduce accidents,” states a web site for NoiseOff:The Citizens Coalition Against Noise Pollution.

The web site maintains that motorcycle noise, like other loud noise, can cause health problems. “The intense roaring vibrational noise of a motorcycle can travel long distances through walls and windows. It is a low frequency noise that cannot be localized. People who are exposed to this type of noise on daily basis suffer from hearing loss, sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, anxiety, hostility, depression and hypertension.”

Bradshaw said the Colorado State Patrol is issuing a permit for the event and will station officers at the intersection of 160 and 44. He said the rally had not yet obtained approval from the Colorado Department of Transportation but expects to do so.

He said organizers keep traffic moving by making sure bikes and cars are parked before they take their money for the entrance fee.

The exact number of vehicles that will attend the rally is impossible to pin down. Bradshaw said four-day paid attendance last year in Ignacio was 48,100, but each person staying one day counts as one person, so the actual total was closer to 12,000 individuals. The biggest day was Saturday, when some 15,000 to 20,000 people attended the headline concert in Ignacio last year, he said, and that caused some congestion, but the remaining days weren’t so problematic.

Echo Basin will have parking for 5,000 motorcycles and 3,000 cars, he said, and about 500 RVs. He said 10,000 people at any one time would probably be the maximum number. If the event gets too full no more tickets will be sold, and “sold-out” signs will be posted at 160.

A live concert is planned for each of four nights. After the concerts, traffic will be halted on 160 to let the concertgoers out from Road 44, Bjorkman said, as is done with other concerts at Echo Basin.

Neighbors’ concerns

But some neighbors who live in the rustic, wooded area voiced strong concerns about potential traffic problems. Susan Stamets of Road M said she is concerned about how she will even get out of her driveway.

Bjorkman and Bradshaw said possibly locals could be given passes so they could drive around the other traffic to get to their homes.

The neighbors also said they are worried about the noise generated by thousands of choppers.

Shirley Jones of Road 44 said she worries that the sound will scare her horses into running into the fence. Laird Carlson of Road 41.9, who lives a mile away from Highway 184, said all he can hear from the highway is Harleys roaring along. “Now you’re bringing 5,000 of them?” he asked.

“That’s going to destroy what people have come here for.” He and other neighbors will be subjected to the concert noise, too, he said.

“I’m not going to get anything out of that,” Carlson said. “I have people coming there that weekend because we have a secluded, beautiful rural atmosphere and this is going against every characteristic of that.”

He said later, “This is like having a frat party in a cathedral.”

Stamets told the Free Press she has no problem with the concerts that normally take place at Echo Basin, but the rally would be a different matter. “Cars have mufflers. Motorcycles don’t seem to. And we’re talking about a much higher level of traffic, for darn close to 24 hours a day.”

She also noted that the rally’s web site says “early camping” begins Aug. 23, so the event could stretch out for nearly two weeks.

Bradshaw said the headline concerts won’t exceed noise levels allowed under the county’s threshhold standards, which are 55 decibels at the boundary line adjoining residential areas. He said the concerts will end around 9 p.m. or even by 8, although there will be bands and “go-go cage dancing” in the beer tents later than that.

“So many people stay in Durango and Durango Mountain and Tamarron and even Silverton and Vallecito, letting them go home earlier is a safer and better way,” he said. “Having concerts end when the sun goes down is perfect.”

Prejudice against bikers

Bradshaw believes much of the opposition to the rally can be attributed to prejudice against bikers based on outmoded stereotypes. Supporters of the rally particularly took offense at one woman’s comment at the planning- commission hearing that her bookstore wouldn’t benefit because “bikers don’t buy books.” She later said she meant that they couldn’t carry them with them.

“Insinuating bikers don’t read books — that’s was utterly ridiculous,” Bradshaw said, adding that he has a master’s degree in theology and taught Biblical Greek in a Lutheran seminary.

“People are stuck in [the biker image as portrayed in] the Hollywood movies of the ’40s and ’50s,” he said. “Bikers are just tourists now. They’re tourists sitting on a motorcycle.

“If I was bringing 10,000 RVs, nobody would care.”

Bradshaw said bikers spend more money per day than other tourists precisely because they are on motorcycles and can’t carry a lot.

“When I ride my bike I take nothing with me. I have to stop to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

He said many Four Corners communities welcome the rally’s economic benefits and pay him to promote them on his web site and in ads and flyers. “Silverton, Pagosa Springs, Bondad, Aztec [N.M.] all pay us to promote what’s going on.”

One catch, however, is that Montezuma County has no sales tax other than a half-cent (0.45 percent) earmarked for the county jail. Mancos has a 4 percent sales tax and Cortez has a sales tax of 4.05 percent, but the county would bear the brunt of the rally’s impacts while gaining little in tax revenues.

Bradshaw said the county could easily remedy that by passing a sales tax, possibly one that would be applied for only two weeks surrounding the rally. “Sturgis [S.D., home of a giant motorcycle rally] does that,” he said. “They also do a special business license for vendors. Sturgis charges them $3,000 a license. They’ve learned to make money off of the rally.”

Voters would have to approve any new sales tax here, and by state law Montezuma County can now only have a total sales tax of 1 percent, so a new one could only be for 0.55 percent.

‘A week of sacrifice’

Beyond sales tax is the amount of money the rally might bring to local businesses. Cortez’s main street has seen a dozen or more businesses close — and some new ones open — in the past year, and many owners of motels, restaurants and retail stores might welcome a flood of new visitors.

Patty Simmons, owner of Blondies Pub & Grub on Cortez’s Main Street, said she supports the rally.

“My No. 1 reason is the economy of our town,” she said. “I’ve been in business twice in this town and it’s so hard to make it without an added boost.

“My No. 2 reason is I’ve traveled all over our country to rallies and seen what kind of crowd they draw and met really nice people.”

Blondies is advertised as a bikerfriendly bar, and Simmons said she’s never had any trouble with bikers. “If anything I’ve had a little bit of trouble with a few young local people who drink a bit too much, but I’ve had zero trouble with bikers,” she said.

“I think the neighbors’ complaints are legitimate,” she said. “It is noisy and it’s constant, but for a week of sacrifice to benefit our town like it would, I think people should be willing to do that.”

In April, Bradshaw told the county commissioners that sales-tax revenues in Durango were higher for September 2004, the month of the rally, than for December of the same year, when Christmas-shopping takes place. He said Durango saw $1.5 million in total sales tax that September, which translates to $18.5 million in revenue.

In addition, the rally gives $50,000 to $100,000 to local charities, he said. “The rally brings in the kind of money that can put officers on the road,” Bradshaw told the Free Press. “It pays for better roads. It pays for better schools. Everybody in the county benefits.” Bikers are generally well-to-do, he said. “They have $40,000 motorcycles. Easyriders magazine says 25 percent of bikers make over $200,000 a year.”

Time to get ready?

But many citizens have serious concerns about safety and law enforcement. In the case of a wildfire, rallygoers would all have to be evacuated via the two-lane Road 44.

“My biggest concern is that this is at the end of a dry summer,” Stamets told the Free Press, “and you’re going to have 20,000 people probably smoking various things, with the inability to control where they flick their butts.”

Bradshaw said the rally works with local fire districts to have a presence throughout the event. “We bring in a volunteer fire department and we donate money to them,” he said. The rally is working with the Mancos fire department and will follow whatever rules it sets, he said.

In addition, there will be an ambulance on-site around the clock, he said. Law enforcement is another huge concern, and local agency officials aren’t sure they can be ready for a rally this Labor Day.

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to put a plan together, with the amount of officers the marshal’s office, the sheriff and the Cortez police have, to control 20, 30, maybe 40 thousand extra people in the county,” Mancos Marshal Bryan Jones told the Free Press. Counting himself, the Mancos Marshal’s Office has a total of three personnel.

“With the [county] jail being 18 miles away, we would need probably three to four officers a shift if we had 500 to 600 extra people converging on the town, going to the bar and the restaurants,” Jones said. “If somebody has to go to jail, that’s one officer and one hour at least.”

Hiring extra help would be an option, he said, but there may not be any personnel available. “With it being Labor Day weekend, a lot of departments aren’t going to let their officers work other events out of their jurisdiction,” he said.

Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane echoed those concerns.

“My concern is the lack of time to be prepared. Totally in Momtezuma County we have 55 officers between us and the sheriff's office. In La Plata County it takes 200 people for them to work the rally over there.

“In our business you have to plan for the worst and hope it never happens and I just don't think we have time this year. In 2007 if they want to have it, you bet, we could start planning in September of this year and we could put together quite a plan, but 60 days I don't think is time to plan for it.”

Lane said he can't hire out-of-state officers because they have to be certified in the state of Colorado. County Sheriff Gerald Wallace estimated he would need 16 additional officers per shift. “Those would deal with the impact of people on Road 44 and on the grounds and with the other calls in the vicinity caused by the impacts of the rally,” he said.

Like Lane and Jones, he isn’t sure he could be ready in time for 2006.

“I’m supportive of some economic development, but this is too important and too big to do it haphazardly,” he said. However, if other law agencies are willing to move forward with the rally, Wallace said he will too.

District Attorney Jim Wilson told the county commissioners in April that he was concerned about the impacts to district court and county court. “With all due respect, when you have a bunch of people, somebody’s going to break the law,” he said. “We have fewer judges and DAs than Durango.” He said the local judicial system is already “pretty packed.”

Bradshaw said in the past the rally has paid about $50,000 to local lawenforcement agencies. How that would be split up is not decided. The rally will also hire private security.

Spectacular riding

Bradshaw disputes the need for so much extra law enforcement locally. He said he doesn’t anticipate that Cortez and Montezuma County will necessarily see more bikers this year than it has before — unless the county and local municipalities choose to have the rally promote them.

The Rally in the Rockies web-site banner says “Durango, Colorado” and mainly describes Echo Basin in terms of its proximity to Durango. Cortez and Mancos are mentioned only briefly.

“I think it [traffic from the rally] will probably be pretty close to what it’s been in the past,” he said. “If Mancos and Cortez say, ‘We’d like to have some events, what can we do?’’ we’ll work with the communities to help direct these bikers over. Right now there’s nothing in Mancos or Cortez.”

The rally is spread out over the Four Corners, Bradshaw said, and many motorcyclists who come to the area won’t attend the main events or visit Echo Basin. “Bikers come to the area because of the riding. It’s the most spectacular riding in the U.S.”

Pinning down the total number who actually come is difficult, he said, but the State Patrol has estimated there are 50,000 to 100,000 motorcycle-riders in the area over the Labor Day holiday, spread out from Silverton to Farmington. Half to two-thirds will not go to Echo Basin, he said.

He emphasized that organizers are motivated to take care of all concerns about trash, sanitation, and safety because they want to be able to continue to have the rally.

“We have to put on a safe event,” Bradshaw said. “If it’s not run safely we’re out of business.”

David Grant Long contributed to this report.