Bikers, city look for compromise

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“We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by the Man.”

– Peter Fonda in the 1966 film The Wild Angels

Andy Anderson looks like a biker.

Gray hair skims his shoulders, and well-worn jeans are his uniform at The Coffee Warehouse, which he has owned for 18 months. His frankness, his courtesy, his comfort with certain technology-it’s straight out of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The most surprising fact about his Harley-Davidson is that it was manufactured in the year 2000.

That same Harley-Davidson-which, like most Harley-Davidsons, has been customized with non-stock exhaust pipes-earned Anderson a $60 citation from the Colorado Springs Police Department.

“They profile me because of the way I look,” Anderson said bluntly.

Harleys, he said, are often louder than the typical motorcycle, and it’s easy for police officers to spot violators of the much-maligned city noise ordinance regarding exhaust systems.

Colorado Springs has made headlines as far away as Texas and Washington in recent weeks regarding the city’s newfound perception as “unfriendly” toward bikers. Out-of-state bikers have been running letters to the editor in national trade magazines, and even daily newspapers in a variety of cities that have mentioned Colorado Springs by name.

The noise ordinance was amended in the late 1990s, although the city’s prohibition of noise-increasing exhaust modifications was enacted 30 years ago. The ordinance has been enforced more enthusiastically as of late, with 83 tickets written to motorcycle owners so far this year-41 citations were issued to motorcyclists in 2003.

No decibel-measuring devices are used; tickets are written based on the officer’s discretion. No points are tacked onto a driver’s license, because the tickets are not technically a moving violation.

Motorcycle enthusiasts met with city officials Tuesday looking for an end to the controversy that has erupted across state lines.

“It went well, with a calm, rational, reasoned presentation by some well-spoken persons,” said Steve Turner, a district representative for ABATE, a nonprofit motorcycle advocacy group. “The outcome was an invitation to form a working group with the chief of police [Luis Velez] and the city council, organized under District 2 of ABATE.”

But one wonders about the claim in some motorcycle publications that bikers are looking to boycott the Centennial State.

“I can say that there definitely is a perception from the people who are riding motorcycles, and of course, perceptions are reality-to them,” said Turner, who fielded dozens of remarks last weekend from out-of-towners at the Salute to American Veterans Rally in Cripple Creek. “I had a lot of people from out of town comment to me that they have no desire to go to Colorado Springs until the situation is resolved.”

Not that bikers are the unionizing sort.

“There is no organized boycott, and there is no official plan to have a boycott,” Turner said. “However, some of the very same people that I spoke with in Cripple Creek, from as far away as Corpus Christi, Texas, said they had read in their hometown newspaper that Colorado Springs was not motorcycle-friendly.”

An e-mail saying just that was sent by Tuscon, Ariz. resident Terry Hartnett to various media sources in the city. His letter stated that as an owner of a Harley-Davidson, he will avoid Colorado Springs and its section of Interstate 25 because of the city council’s “noise tax,” and will encourage other motorcycle owners to do the same.

“If somebody gave me a ticket and didn’t have a decibel reading, I’m going to take them to court,” Hartnett said. “It appears that law enforcement in Colorado Springs is thinking about Harley-Davidsons in particular, thinking ‘we’re going to make life miserable for them, and we’re going to make some money.'”

Police say that just isn’t true.

“By city ordinance we do not need a decibel reading,” said Lt. Rafael Cintron, spokesman for the Colorado Springs Police Department. “[The ordinance] does not require an officer to use a noise meter.” The city law, when amended in the 1990s, allows police officers to write citations without a noise-measuring device.

It’s the vagueness of an ordinance that does not require an objective reading that Turner argues may be unconstitutional.

“The constitutionality of the ordinances themselves is in question. There are many feelings in the biker community about all of this, and those feelings run deep. If this doesn’t work, there will be an institutional memory, a lasting memory, that we felt we were picked on, that we weren’t treated fairly.”

There are 18,600 registered motorcycles in Colorado Springs.

Harleys, in particular, are expensive toys. The average Harley-Davidson owner is middle-aged and makes $78,000 a year. Many are bankers, lawyers, accountants and even politicians (including Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell).

With that kind of disposable income at stake, restaurants and bars that cater to the biker crowd might have reason to worry about a possible boycott.

Anderson, a regular face at Southside Johnny’s on Tejon Street, said the restaurant is a biker favorite.

Owner Johnny Nolan estimated that 35 to 40 percent of his clientele is bikers, who often come to lunch in a business suit, and stop in for dinner on their motorcycles.

“I have friends who are bikers and I have friends who are cops,” he said. “You’re caught in the middle as a business owner.”

Nolan said the ordinance needs to be more specific about who it targets, because the economic impact on biker-frequented establishments could be harmful.

“I think [the police] need to go after major offenders. If bikers are scared they’re going to get a ticket, it might discourage people from their weekend joyrides.”

The situation in Colorado Springs is roughly identical to what happened in Albuquerque in 1999, when the city enacted an ordinance that did not require police officers to use a decibel-measuring device in order to write citations. Certain bikers, particularly Harley-Davidson owners, felt targeted.

Fast-forward 18 months, and bikers had become organized in their boycott of northern New Mexico-to the point where no gas stations, restaurants or hotels were used by motorcycle owners, on or off their bikes. As the economics suffered noticeably, the city moved to create a task force to address the issue.

The answer, in Albuquerque’s case, was an objective standard which used sound-measuring device rather than the officer’s judgment.

“I’m amazed that [Colorado’s] tourism board hasn’t pitched a fit over this,” said Hartnett. “They’ve spent millions, and your city is being a jerk. It just doesn’t make sense.”

However, some in the tourist trade say that although bikers play a supporting role, a boycott most likely would not make a noticeable dent in the state’s overall tourism revenues.

“There are 230,000 jobs in this economy, and 100 bikers visiting probably wouldn’t be the equivalent of a week’s worth of employment,” said Rocky Scott, president of the Economic Development Corp. “Very few [motorcyclists] would be so upset about a noise ordinance that they would not come to the city.”

Terry Sullivan, president of the Colorado Convention and Visitors Bureau, agreed. “Certainly, as with any piece of business, it’s an important event. But it wouldn’t be what I would call a significant part of the business mix.”

Not that bikers can be written off.

The bureau worked for two years to be chosen as the kickoff point for the annual Harley-Davidson Posse Ride. About 650 Harley-Davidson owners from all across the country stayed in Colorado Springs for three days earlier this month.

On the morning of Aug. 5, the bikers were escorted to Garden of the Gods for breakfast and a photo shoot, and Mayor Lionel Rivera addressed them.

“[Mayor Rivera] was saying how much we appreciated motorcycles and their revenue to this community. The economic impact in hotels-and this was the Doubletree, La Quinta, Hampton Inn, the Quality Inn, the Fairfield Inn,
the Sheraton and others-all were full with motorcyclists. They paid $300,000 in hotel bills during their three-night stay. You could double that for the total expenditures while they were here. They also bring word of mouth over what a great host Colorado Springs was.

“Our mayor certainly stood in front of 650 motorcyclists with confidence that we are, in fact, a friendly city for motorcyclists.”

In a letter to all media sources following a slew of stories recently regarding the ordinance, Velez wrote, “Noise is one of the concerns the Police Department receives numerous contacts on, as evidenced by almost 5,000 calls for service annually, the majority involving vehicle noise of various types. I can also say from personal experience that noise complaints, especially those involving motorcycles, are commonly communicated to Police Department staff and myself.”

Velez continued, “I believe that much of the misinformation and perceptual problems directed at our agency can be attributed to one misinformed individual’s e-mail campaign, and another disgruntled local resident, who received a ticket for a flagrant speeding and illegal exhaust violation. Their innuendoes, accusations, and insinuations, while self-serving, are completely false.”

Local motorcycle owners said that while the controversy has gotten plenty of press recently, all groups must work toward a consensus, or risk losing a valuable part of the state’s diversified tourism economy.

“Many of us agree with [Vice Mayor Richard] Skorman that there’s too much racket down on Tejon Street. But if indeed, [the police] are enforcing this thing unfairly, we’ve got to do something about it,” said Jim Wear, of Pro Promotions, a company that promotes biker runs, rallies and charity rides. “I think what is being said is exaggerated on both sides. Some of what is in the motorcycle publications is conjecture; some of what the police department reports is not necessarily accurate.”

It’s almost a moot point, Wear said, who’s “right.”

“The boycott thing is real; as for the basis of why people are boycotting, it doesn’t matter whether it’s valid or not. It’s too late. The thing is happening, so we have to counteract it. It’s definitely a concern to me that we’re getting bad press. We’re beyond the point of pointing fingers. Now we have to look at what we do to make it better, to make it go away. We want to work together to come up with a solution that’s reasonable for everybody.”

As for Anderson, he’s paid his fine and put it behind him. He’s still a regular at Southside Johnny’s.

- Editorial@csbj.com