The motocross courses next door
Neighbors complain they’re a nuisance but supervisors are reluctant to regulate
When Thelma and Bob Behrens moved into their semi-rural home on Keefer Road north of Chico 12 years ago, they were seeking some country quiet in their sunset years. Now 88 and 92, respectively, they’ve been married for 70 years.
All went well until about four years ago, when the property next door sold. Like many of the mini-mansions along Keefer, it’s a large house (3,800 square feet) set back from the road on a five-acre parcel. The new owner, Don Flaner, is in the construction business and is also a professional designer of motocross tracks, the Behrens say. He promptly installed a motocross course between the road and his house, right next door to the Behrens’ modest residence.
For the past three years or more, the Behrens and their granddaughter, Emerald, who until recently lived with them, have been forced to put up with the screaming and whining of as many as three dirt bikes at a time racing over the jumps, dips and curves of a course that is only about 200 feet from their residence.
Rallies were held on weekends, they say, and as many as 10 cyclists would come. The events “could go on for hours,” Thelma Behrens said, especially on Sundays. “Sunday is usually his day to howl, but it could happen any day.”
They have video recordings shot from their driveway. The noise—of two-stroke engines that sound like chainsaws being revved over and over—is harsh and constant.
The Behrens have been through a lot in their long lives, so they put up with the racket as best they could. The bigger problem, they say, is that they need to sell their house and move to be closer to a Kaiser medical facility, and their house has become unsaleable.
“Would you like to buy a house next to a motocross track?” Thelma asked rhetorically.
For a long time the Behrenses have been trying to get Butte County to do something about Flaner’s motocross course. It turned out they weren’t the only ones complaining about off-road tracks.
Over on Santa Clara Avenue, on the far west side of Chico off Rose Avenue, a motocross track has been in operation for more than 30 years. It’s located on a 1.3-acre parcel owned by Roxanne Parker, who raised her two motorcycle-loving sons there.
The problem is that, although the surrounding area is largely farm land, Parker’s house is part of a small residential neighborhood. She has several nearby neighbors who are bothered by the noise and the lights that allow the track to be used at night. Eventually 22 neighbors signed a petition asking the county to declare the track a public nuisance.
In 2009, the supervisors asked planning staff to come up with an ordinance to regulate off-highway vehicles and spontaneous motocross tracks. Senior Planner Claudia Stuart presented a draft of such an ordinance at a public hearing on May 25.
Pointing out that the county lacked a noise ordinance but was developing one as part of its new general plan, Stuart said staff had investigated OHV ordinances in 10 other counties. Their proposed plan, she said, had four key provisions: that motocross tracks would be prohibited in some areas (residential zones, for example); that they would require conditional use permits in other areas; that they would have to be at least 500 feet from any noise-sensitive site (such as a neighboring house); and that they would be allowed only on parcels of five acres or more.
By those standards, both of the tracks under consideration would not qualify.
Word of the hearing had spread, apparently, because a number of people not associated with either of the two sites showed up to tell supervisors they were opposed to the proposed ordinance. It soon became clear that there were a lot more backyard motocross tracks than the supervisors realized.
Opponents’ argument was that backyard motocrossing in appropriate areas was a good family activity, that riding on courses was safer than free riding, and that the ordinance went way too far. Three of the supervisors—Steve Lambert, Chairman Bill Connelly and Kim Yamaguchi—appeared to agree with them, saying the matter called for being “good neighbors,” not heavy-handed legislation. As Connelly put it, a hammer was needed, but the proposed ordinance was a sledgehammer.
“We don’t have the tools to deal with rightful complaints,” Supervisor Jane Dolan countered, referring to the lack of a noise ordinance. The complainants were unable to enjoy their homes, she added, “and that’s not fair.”
Don Flaner attended the hearing, telling the supervisors he’d gone to great lengths to keep his track from being objectionable, installing a watering system to keep down dust and limiting the hours of use. He’d used the track only six times from January through April, he said, though lately, with good weather, it had been more like twice a week.
He then went on to question Thelma Behrens’ motives, suggesting she was a busybody with nothing better to do, that she was lying about needing to move, and that the Behrenses had made no effort to sell their house.
Roxanne Parker’s son Robert said he, his brother and their friends had grown up riding on the Santa Clara track. He asked why nobody had complained before about a facility that had existed since 1978. He insisted that “usually no one is riding before noon, and usually no one is riding past 7:30 or 8 [p.m.].”
But Jeff Fontana, who lives across the street from the track, said all neighbors’ efforts to get Parker and his friends to respect their needs for peace and quiet, especially at night, had been fruitless, and that the “duration, frequency and intensity” of use had steadily increased.
Roxanne Parker seemed to confirm that. She said she was perfectly able to sleep when the track was being used, even if it was at 11 at night. All the neighbors had to do to get them to shut it down was drive up and blink their lights.
Lambert was irked. “That’s not right,” he said.
“If it’s 11 o’clock, it’s on a weekend,” Parker replied.
“But that’s ridiculous,” Lambert said.
Yamaguchi was also upset. “That infuriates me that someone would have to come out of their house and flash their lights to get it shut down,” he said. He told Parker she’d better start working with her neighbors to resolve the matter, leaving unsaid the hint that otherwise the track might qualify as a genuine nuisance.
Apologizing to Stuart, the supervisors asked her to shelve the proposal and instead determine how existing noise, nuisance abatement and lighting codes could be applied to the sites.
In a recent phone interview, Stuart said staff will be providing the supervisors with various options for controlling noise (by measuring decibel levels) and regulating hours of operation.
Complaints would be handled by code-enforcement officers, of which the fiscally strapped county has fewer and fewer. In a phone interview this week, Supervisor Maureen Kirk acknowledged that the county is “not that well-equipped to enforce that kind of ordinance.”
Dolan, reached by phone Tuesday (Aug. 3), said, “Mrs. Behrens and the folks from Santa Clara were outnumbered and outargued” at the May 25 meeting. She remains convinced, however, that motocross tracks are “completely inappropriate in a residential setting” and should require a conditional use permit and environmental analysis.
“It’s just wrong,” she said. “The board just completely ignored the property rights of the neighbors.”
Since the May 25 meeting, Flaner has put his house on Keefer Road up for sale (asking price: $935,000) and shut down the motocross track. The Behrenses have enjoyed a few months of peace and quiet.
But the flyer advertising the house and Flaner’s real-estate agent’s website both show the motocross track as an amenity that comes with the house. “Motocross fans will be thrilled to own their own course!!” the website reads.
As long as the track is there, the Behrenses believe, they will have trouble selling their house.
Flaner did not return a message left with his agent, but she told the CN&R that if the buyer of the house didn’t want the course, Flaner would be happy to level it.