DNR: no petition investigation

Illinois Department of Natural Resources balks at investigation unless complaint is lodged about petitions that led to No-Wake zone on Rock River

Illinois Department of Natural Resource (DNR) officials will not conduct their own investigation into petition irregularities that led to this year’s controversial No-Wake restriction on the Rock River at Martin Park. This decision comes despite findings by The Rock River Times and WTVO-TV Channel 17 that suggest some of the petition signatures may have been collected under fraudulent conditions.

Malaney Arnold, public information officer for the DNR, said no formal complaint about the petition irregularities has been received by the DNR. If a complaint is filed, Arnold said the complaint could trigger an investigation into the validity of the claims. She added that anyone can file a complaint.

The petition signatures were collected in 2003—two years before the No-Wake zone was enforced by the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department.

New proposal

In what may be unsatisfactory news to local boaters, Arnold added DNR Capt. Greg Hunter recently requested the No-Wake restriction be shortened from about 2,100 feet to 850 feet. Specifically, Arnold said Hunter proposed the restriction zone be shortened to 200 feet north of the boat launch at Martin Park, and 650 feet south of the same river access point. However, the No-Wake zone will still span the entire width of the river, which is a sore point with boaters.

The current No-Wake zone extends between the Riverside Boulevard bridge about 600 feet north of the boat launch, and 1,500 feet south to the island near Martin Park.

As evident by nearly 500 signatures against the restriction, the No-Wake zone on the Rockford and Loves Park border was met with stiff opposition from boaters. They argued the current restriction was excessive, which resulted in damage to recreation and businesses tied to river traffic. The restriction requires boaters to dramatically slow their craft that supporters argued enhanced safety near the boat launch.

Petition signers

The 63 proponents who signed the petition for the creation of the No-Wake zone in 2003, which spurred the DNR to enact the restriction, came from two area institutions—the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Department and Harlem High School. Some of the signers were found to not be eligible to sign the petition.

State rules indicate petition signers must be directly impacted by the restriction.

The Illinois Administrative Code concerning the No-Wake zone requires that signers of the petition “be directly affected by the restriction.” The authority for the code is derived from state statute.

Specifically, the rule dictates that a “minimum of 25 signatures of interested persons over the age of 18 who would be directly affected by the restriction” be submitted to the DNR before the department would consider restricting a waterway.

WTVO reported Oct. 31 that of the nine people from Harlem they contacted who signed the petition, seven “said they did not have a boat or live on the river.”

The Rock River Times contacted one petition signer from Harlem who said when he/she signed the petition, that person had no knowledge he/she had to be directly affected by the restriction. The person also said he/she did not have a boat, live on the river or know who or how many people at Harlem circulated the petition.

Unanswered questions

Winnebago County Sheriff Dick Meyers said Nov. 28 the “petitions were kind of irrelevant” to the issue of implementing the No-Wake restriction. He went on to say the DNR suggested that Sheriff’s Department employees sign the petition.

However, Meyers wasn’t sure how many Sheriff’s Department employees signed the petition, and of those that signed the petition, how many did or did not work on the river.

“I told you all I know about the petitions,” Meyers said.

Meyers said to the best of his knowledge, DNR officials met with Rockford Park District representatives to discuss the No-Wake zone as it related to their docking of the Forest City Queen at Martin Park. As a result, Meyers said the DNR proposed the shortened restriction zone.

As to why two years elapsed between the time the restriction was approved in 2003 and before the No-Wake zone was enforced this year, Meyers said the first full season the restriction would have been enacted was 2004. Meyers explained that in 2004, the river was closed much of the summer because of high water levels and debris in the water, which was caused by heavy rainfall.

Steve Lucas, boating enthusiast and owner of Rock River Enterprises and Barge, Inc., alleged the river level was needlessly high in 2004 due to mismanagement of the Fordam Dam in downtown Rockford. Lucas made a similar argument this past summer due to low river levels.

Leading the criticism

Lucas and fellow boating activist Rick Fiduccia spearheaded a campaign to lift the No-Wake restriction they said is negatively affecting businesses that depend on river traffic, and is driving recreational boaters to other waterways.

Lucas and Fiduccia personally collected nearly 500 signatures opposing the No-Wake zone from boaters and river homeowners last summer.

They also created the Web site www.rrnowake.com to communicate their findings. Lucas was recently elected president of the Rock River Homeowners Association, primarily as a result of that effort.

Other critics suspected the primary reason the No-Wake zone may have been implemented was an effort to control noise from loud watercraft that pass near politically powerful homeowners who live on the river.

Meyers argued the restriction was enacted for safety reasons that relate to increased river traffic near the boat launch at Martin Park. However, the only known information relating to river traffic is estimated and anecdotal, rather than empirical data.

In response to criticisms of the restriction, on July 21 of this year, Meyers requested the DNR to “revisit the issue of the No-Wake area” by shortening the zone.

In his memo, Meyers requested “a No-Wake zone of 300 feet to the north and 300 feet south of the center line of the docks at Martin Park, extending across the width of the river.”

This compares with Hunter’s proposal of 200 feet north, and 650 feet south of the boat launch.

Fiduccia said he would be in favor of the new proposal if the restriction extended only 150 feet from the eastern shoreline, instead of across the entire river. He emphasized that such a width limitation is in accordance with state statutes.

Fiduccia said he was considering whether to file a complaint with the DNR about the petition irregularities.

From the Nov. 30-Dec. 6, 2005, issue

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