"It’s starting now. Do you hear it?” Henry asks. The raspy chirp of a motorcycle engine intrudes upon the morning’s stillness, muffling songbirds in the avocado grove on the slope below Henry’s house in Rainbow. Five miles away, the day’s first rider has entered a dirt track at the Pala Raceway.
The sound of motorcycles is all too familiar to area residents.
Located off Highway 76 on the Pala Reservation, the raceway was built by Ryan Oullette on 200 acres that he leases from the Pala Band of Mission Indians. Since opening in April 2009, the raceway has been popular with motocross riders. It now has 13 tracks, according to a map on the raceway’s website.
The raceway is not, however, popular with the hundreds of residents who live within ten miles of it. Since it opened, neighbors have complained about the noise to the tribal council, to Ryan Oullette, and to county supervisor Bill Horn.
Neighbors say that because the track is located on the reservation, Oullette does not have to comply with county or state laws. In fact, the Pala Band, a sovereign nation, is not subject to county noise ordinances. During the past two years, nearby residents say, Oullette and the tribal leaders have failed to mitigate the noise impact, and neighbors have discussed filing a lawsuit. One resident has even moved out of his home.
“I couldn’t stand hearing that buzzing sound every afternoon,” says Tom Bond, in a phone interview. Bond built his home in a mountain meadow, just below a 2230-foot peak that’s north of the raceway. He retired to the 11.5-acre property almost a decade ago, after his doctor told him to find a warm, dry climate. “I hear people accuse me of being a Nimby,” he says. “Bullshit, we all have a right to not have our brains scattered by continual buzzing sounds.”
Before the track was built, says Bond, “I would walk around my property, and all I heard was the wind and the birds and the sound of my heart. All that changed on opening day.”
Sitting outside on his patio, Henry (not his real name) talks over the low, snarling sound of a bike engine. His voice rises as his emotions surface. “For us, living on the hills surrounding the track, well, noise travels up. It bounces off the hills and into our face. Maybe they hope that we can get used to it, but I can never get used to that noise.”
Like Tom Bond, Henry moved to Rainbow in 2002 to retire. “On a warm spring morning, I’d like to come out here and read a book, not have the sound of a motorcycle revving in my face. It’s a constant irritation. How dare they do that? How dare they invade my world?
“The problem,” Henry explains, “is the low-frequency, guttural roar, and it fluctuates. That’s the most annoying part. If you lived on the freeway and the noise was constant, then you would get used to it, and you probably wouldn’t know it was there.”
Henry’s emotions are high today, April 1, because tailpipe restrictions are being implemented at the raceway today to cut down on noise. The restrictions don’t seem to be making much difference in the sound level.
In April 2010, Pala’s tribal council hired an acoustical consultant, Medlin and Associates, based in Carlsbad, to conduct a noise study. Neighbors were pleased to hear that the tribe had hired the firm, but they weren’t pleased with the findings.
Medlin and Associates determined that the sound coming from the raceway did not exceed the county sound level limit, which is an average of 50 decibels per hour in rural areas. So even if the tribe did have to comply with county noise ordinances, Oullette would be allowed to operate as is.
The Medlin study also found that the noise from the track — which it referred to as a low, continuous snarl — did not create a significant impact to area residents. Noise levels peaked at 50 to 55 decibels in the middle of the afternoon, and the study suggested that motorcycles ridden in the hills around Rainbow, vehicles used by avocado growers, and possibly chainsaws and weed whackers were responsible for some of the noise.
Despite finding that noise from the track did not exceed county limits, the consultant recommended limiting the sound from tailpipes to 96 decibels (measured from a distance of 20 inches), the level required by the State of California at vehicular recreation areas. Other recommendations included building sound barriers and reconfiguring the track.
Residents discount the study, pointing out that the acoustical consultants were working for the tribe and not for area residents.
Representatives from Medlin and Associates measured noise levels at Henry’s house one day. “They set up their noise meters during a Wednesday afternoon,” Henry says, pointing out that track usage is higher on weekends. “No way was that a true representation. I know what a weed whacker sounds like. It’s totally bogus.”
Dee DiPietro, who lives five miles from the track, also questions the accuracy of the study.
“There is a distinct difference between a motorcycle on the track and a random motorcycle or a nearby wood chipper,” she says. “When there’s a random motorcycle, it comes and goes and it is not a constant noise for five hours.
“It’s disappointing that there is so little regard,” she continues. “They think if they ignore us long enough, then we will get used to the noise and we will go away, instead of being responsible for it. I go home on the weekends from traveling, and I want to relax. They have ruined it.”
DiPietro exchanged city living for country living in 2005, when she and her husband purchased their place in Rainbow and began growing organic avocados. “This is supposed to be our retirement home, but who the heck wants to live near a racetrack?” she asks.
DiPietro echoes others’ complaints that the sound of bikes circling a raceway is hard to get used to.
Sharo Sanavi, principal for acoustical engineering firm ABC Acoustics, agrees. “There are some studies that show intermittent noise, such as dirt bikes, is more annoying than constant noise.
“The measurements might be under the limit,” he adds, “but they can still be considered nuisance noise because of the type of noise. Noise ordinances state that residents should enjoy their property.”
Shasta Gaughen is the Pala Band’s environmental director. She thinks that the neighbors may be exaggerating the noise level.
“In my opinion, the noise is very faint,” says Gaughen. “These folks moved into these rural neighborhoods where it is extremely quiet, so even a faint change in background noise is going to be noticeable.
“There might be some people that would hear the level of noise and say, ‘Come on, I live next to a freeway or train tracks.’ But when you’ve gone from silence to a buzzing background it can be annoying, and we certainly want to address that,” says Gaughen.
Gaughen disagrees that the tribe is not being compliant with local noise ordinances.
“People seem to hear the word ‘sovereign’ and think that [tribal members] can do whatever they want, but nothing could be further from the truth,” she says, during a phone interview. “We have to abide by all federal regulations. Obviously, we want to be good neighbors, and we don’t want to upset the people who live around us who expect the peace and quiet of rural life. But any contention by them that the tribe doesn’t have to follow the rules is not true.
“As the study indicates, the raceway is in compliance with local ordinances for noise levels. We want to do the right thing by our neighbors. We want to find the best and most efficient way to address the noise.
“The only way to completely solve the problem is to close down the raceway, and as far as I know at this point, that isn’t an option. There are some people who will not be satisfied unless the track is shut down.”
What’s the next step for nearby residents?
“Going to go get legal counsel,” says DiPietro. “They are creating an adversarial relationship with the community. We’ve tried to work with them, and they aren’t responding. There’s not much else we can do.”
Ryan Oullette declined to comment.