Ever since Claire Pennel’s neighbors constructed a weekend motocross course in their back yard, the buzz of the bikes has droned in the elderly man’s psyche Monday through Friday and beyond.
“They follow each other around just like Evel Knievels,” Pennel said. “That’s what they are, little Evel Knievels.”
On weekends, Brad Rose’s daughter, 10, and his son, 7, fire up their bikes early and ride late. Occasionally a friend joins the party. Their parents cheer the kids on, occasionally firing up a larger, louder, adult motorcycle and testing the jumps. Pennel and the other residents living less than 100 feet from the course brace themselves.
The course is small, but the thrills are real. The noise is akin to giant hornets high on unleaded petrol.
In a picture Pennel clutches in his right hand, an airborne motorcycle flies at a height even with the living room window of a split-level home in the background. Video footage shows five kid-sized motorcycles buzzing around the narrow, ¼-acre track simultaneously.
Rose and Pennel’s neighborhood exists on the far, far eastern edge of Fourth Avenue, less than 200 yards from where the asphalt’s crumbled edge surrenders to rocky Valley soil and spotted knapweed. But theirs is a neighborhood in transition. More than 60 homes have been built in the area in the last three years, and still more are planned. The sprawling acre-lots and modest homes that once characterized the neighborhood are giving way to larger homes with yards scarcely big enough for a patio table and barbecue.
The lots immediately around the two neighbors are still large, and Rose makes no apologies for the motorcycle course. Spokane Valley’s code enforcement office has been out to the course to test the noise level and, according to Rose, cleared the activity.
“I knew it was going to upset the neighbors, but that’s why I had a decibel reading,” Rose said. “I’ve got paperwork from people who work for the city. The decibel meter on three bikes was at 52. I’m allowed 55.”
The motorcycles are no louder than a lawnmower, Rose argues, but the difference, says Pennel, is that people don’t rev their lawnmowers all day.
Pennel and the other neighbors are convinced they’re in the right, or at least should be, and that the Spokane Valley officials are giving them the runaround.
Neighbors began launching complaints about Rose almost the day after he moved in, a little less than a year ago. The family had hardly unpacked when a friend of Rose’s showed up with a small excavator, commonly referred to as a Bobcat, and began carving track into the back yard.
“We were thinking they were going to landscape the yard,” neighbor Annette Halverson said. “They brought in a Bobcat and tore out the trees and bushes. They built one jump. Then this summer it went from one jump to two.”
Halverson contacted Spokane Valley city code enforcement, thinking a compliance officer would come out, and the matter would be quickly settled. But the Rose family typically runs its bikes on the weekend, and Halverson was told the city’s compliance officers only worked Monday through Friday.
The Spokane Valley police, who would come investigate on the weekend, would speak to Rose then drive off as neighbors watched from a distance. The neighbors never knew the outcome of the officer’s conversation with Rose, but Rose said that police suggested he advise his neighbors to build a fence.
Pennel went down to the police station to inquire about the city’s noise ordinance, but he didn’t have much luck.
“I went to the sheriff’s department to complain, and they said, ‘We don’t have a noise ordinance,’ ” Pennel said.
But it turns out Spokane Valley does have a noise ordinance and a nuisance law both dealing with motorcycles. Neither law, however, has done what neighbors hoped would happen. And now, the Spokane Valley City Council has promised to take the neighborhood’s concerns under advisement — and get back to them.
Rose, on the other hand, insists he already has the answer.
“I’ve had cops out here, who don’t have a problem with it,” Rose said. “The main reason I bought the house was for the chunk of land so my kids would have someplace to ride. Other places are closing down.”
Rose’s children, of course, think building the motocross track was spot on. Their dad couldn’t have scored bigger points had he come home from work and announced he was buying a baby tiger.
The rev of the motorcycles excites even Halverson’s 2-year-old twins and her 5-year-old. After sundown, the bikes chase each other in circles like cats, illuminated by the headlights of the Rose family vehicles. Meanwhile, Halverson is trying to put her children to bed.
“I think all of us would go on record to say we want his family to enjoy their family time,” Halverson said of Rose. “But not at the expense of the neighbors and our family time.”
The morning aftermath to the dirt biking is also exciting, but in a bad way. Track dust drifts to the northwest and clings to the Halversons’ static-prone, vinyl home siding and their children’s plastic playground equipment, despite Rose’s best efforts to hose down the course. The silt drifts east to Mike Edwards and Claire Pennel’s, northeast to Richard Schatzka’s. They feel dust on their molars, while grinding their teeth.