Farm family, neighbors at odds over Rainier motocross track

Owners say track offers family fun and might save farm; others dislike the noise

ckrotzer@theolympian.comJuly 28, 2013 

A longtime Thurston County family says a motocross track on their property is their last chance to save their farm but neighbors are objecting to the noise and disruption a commercial track would generate.

Members of the Mahan family say they will lose their 400-acre farm off Vail Cutoff Road in Rainier if they don’t get to build a motocross track and 4x4 area for outdoor recreational vehicles that would bring in more income.

“Farmers in general need to have other ways of income other than just farming,” said Jeff Mahan, whose family has run the farm for 35 years. “You need other ways to be able to keep the farm running.”

But the track has caused concern among neighbors such as Susan Mayer, who lives about a mile and a half away. Mayer and other neighbors formed the Rainier Vail Neighborhood Group in opposition to the track at Cadillac Ranch.

The Mahan family had events on an already existing 1.5-mile track starting in 2010. They are proposing to build a new 3/4-mile track adjacent to the current track to replace it.

“When they started in 2010, the noise was so excruciating, people couldn’t stay in their houses,” Mayer said. “The first response is the noise; you can’t handle it.”

As part of the permit process and to help reduce neighbor concerns, the Mahan family agreed to keep the sound at 96 decibels. Decibel readings on the nearest property ranged in the 40s to low 50s during tests. A blender and a garbage disposal register in the high 80s.

The Mahans also agreed to water down the track to help cut down on any dust that would waft onto neighboring properties.

But extra considerations haven’t won over Thurston County Senior Planner Robert Smith, who is recommending the county hearing examiner deny the track proposal after a public hearing Monday.

“Based on comments we received from area property owners, the operations in the past that have gone on, in their minds anyway, have greatly impacted their enjoyment of their properties,” Smith said.

THE PROPOSAL

To operate, the Mahans need to replace the old track with a new one because of conflicting zoning.

Part of the Mahan property is zoned as protected forest land, which is where the current track sits. To open a track to the public, the family would have to build a new track on agriculturally zoned land.

The track plans call for 97 parking spots and eventually a 12,000-square-foot day lodge with a restaurant to cater to what they hope will be a number of motocross enthusiasts during each event.

Those plans are part of the reason Smith is recommending the county deny the proposal.

The family applied for a special use permit as an athletic facility, which according to county code can have no more than 30 parking spaces and must have a significantly smaller facility.

That specific permit also means the facility would be geared toward supporting the local community, not riders from across Western Washington, Smith said.

While the Mahans’ proposal doesn’t seem to fit an athletic complex designation, Smith admitted it was the closest fit within the county’s current zoning structure.

“It’s up to them to propose the category, but in my review of the different categories, that seems to be the best fit in terms of what they are doing,” Smith said.

The Mahans say the idea of bringing riders to Rainier fits in with what the county is trying to do with agritourism.

The proposal states the track would run an average of three to four days a week, and be open from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. for practice runs. Events would run from as early as 8 a.m. but no later than 7:30 p.m., and once a month the family proposed a mini-bike event on a Saturday that would end no later than 9:30 p.m.

The average event would wrap up by 5:30 p.m., pending any issues with the track or riders, the Mahans said. The family would also pay for an EMT on site during events.

SAVING THE FARM

The Mahans are proposing the track out of economic necessity.

The 400-acre dairy farm called Cadillac Ranch first hit hard times when owner Larry Mahan fell through a hay mower and lost his leg in 1985. The family sold 40 acres of the property to help ease financial burdens. Those 40 acres now contain the homes where most of the opponents of the track now live.

The economic hardships of the past few years put further financial stress on the family-owned farm, and it was pushed to the limit after the Wilcox Milk Industry went out of business. The family’s organic dairy herd was eventually sold off.

The family has since started to rebuild a herd and also cultivates hay, but it’s still not enough.

The Mahans and many Rainier residents have enjoyed motocross for decades, so the Mahans turned their sights to a motocross track, planning to use 50 acres of their property for what they hoped would provide a steady income.

Permits so far have been approved, including a State Environmental Policy Act action, which is what the neighborhood group is appealing.

Neighbor Tim Nelson, who lives less than a mile from the track, said motocross is a way of life for the area and stressed that an outlet is needed for Rainier’s youths.

“People are moving out here from the cities, not realizing this is what people do out here,” Nelson said. “They ride bikes, shoot guns, run chain saws — it’s what we do.”

Nelson rode motorcycles as a kid growing up in Rainier, taking advantage of the miles of trails once open on Weyerhaeuser forest lands that run next to the Mahans’ property.

He says it’s outlets like motocross that help keep kids out of trouble and provide an activity local families can do together.

“In the ’70s, you either rode a motorcycle or sit on a fence and watch the cars go by,” Nelson said. “Either that or you got in trouble. Now what can you do? Sit on a fence?”

He added: “I really think it’s a great idea, and could bring jobs to the community and actually give people a place to go.”

PEACE AND QUIET

Neighbors in opposition have sent letters to Thurston County describing the noise during previous events.

“The constant noise is very bothersome and irritating at my house, even with the windows closed,” said neighbor Daniel Johnson in a letter dated July 15, 2012. “Now that the weather is warmer, we open the windows, which makes the noise much worse.”

The letter asks the county to “stop this constant invasion of our peace.”

Mayer and the other neighbors say they are also concerned about impacts on the environment, traffic and property values as well as any criminal activity that could come along with a race track.

Thurston County sheriff’s Lt. Greg Elwin said the Sheriff’s Office has no knowledge of recent issues during any events at Cadillac Ranch.

“I talked to a couple different supervisors, both who are familiar with Cadillac Ranch and what they do,” Elwin said. “One of them was aware of something that went on there recently, and said it seemed to be a well-managed event with no issues.”

As for the sound levels, the Mahans hired a sound analyst from California to help come up with a noise-control plan.

A test taken 1,000 feet from the closest home abutting the Mahan property showed a sound decibel reading of 44 with 25 bikes on the track, and 52 with 38 bikes, just two shy of the maximum number of riders.

But the neighborhood group questions the validity of the noise-control analysis.

“The county never checked who did the sound, how partial that sound test was,” Mayer said.

The Mahans have also said they would stagger events, putting quieter events like mini bikes and beginner classes in between intermediate and professional events.

DECISION MONDAY

Those for and against Cadillac Ranch will have the opportunity to speak Monday. The final decision is up to the county hearing examiner, Smith said.

Whatever the decision, there is still the option to appeal, he said.

For the Mahans, it will be a make-or-break decision.

“If we can’t keep that farm, there could be 50 houses out there, which means more riffraff and traffic than this track would make,” said Jeff Mahan.

But that’s what the neighbors would prefer, Mayer said.

“They have a number of other options — there is development in different areas, they could parcel the property out, which is keeping with the rural profile of the neighborhood,” Mayer said. “If you put that (track) in here, the whole region is going to change.”

If you go

The public hearing on the motocross track begins at 10 a.m. Monday at the Thurston County Courthouse, Building 1, 2000 Lakeridge Drive SW, Olympia.

Chelsea Krotzer: 360-754-5476 ckrotzer@theolympian.com @chelseakrotzer

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