Proposed drive-in again faces challenge from neighbors

As a June 28 vote of the Winnebago County Board nears, parties for and against a proposed drive-in theater in Seward Township are pleading their cases.

During public participation at the June 14 meeting, Rockford resident Rodney Bramlett spoke in favor of the outdoor theater he hopes will open on the 30-acre site of the former Ironwood Golf Center.

“I’m not sure why there’s such resistance to a simple drive-in movie theater in Winnebago County,” Bramlett told board members. “I’m sure the owners of this drive-in are gonna wanna do everything they can to be good neighbors. It would just make business sense.”

Bramlett has supported the efforts of Mike and Mia Kerz since they first proposed re-opening the Sunset Drive-In on Samuelson Road in Rockford. Noise concerns of neighbors eventually led to the City Council’s denial of the Kerzes’ petitions in April.

Bramlett and the Kerzes are hopeful they can put to bed any misconceptions about the proposed Starlite Drive-In.

The Kerzes say noise is no longer a concern because the new site features natural berms and is bordered by trees. There would be no external amplification. Movie-goers would listen to the films by way of car radio. Proponents further argue horn-honking will not be permitted.

The Kerzes originally wanted to have the theater open by the end of June. One screen is planned on the former driving range, but the Kerzes indicated they may add as many as two more later.

Terri Lundberg, a neighbor of the proposed site, doesn’t like the idea of an outdoor theater coming to her rural community.

“We live in the country by choice,” Lundberg noted. “We want to be surrounded by cornfields and wheat fields. If we wanted to be close to theaters and other businesses, we’d move into town. …It’s our neighborhood, and we want to maintain the agricultural and rural environment.”

The Kerzes maintain the theater will be family-oriented. Lundberg, however, said the so-called “flashback weekends,” which the Kerzes are noted for, are not family-oriented because they are all-night screenings of horror films.

Lundberg’s concerns didn’t end there.

“With a few hundred cars backed up at the intersection at the end of the movie,” Lundberg claimed, “impatience would be rampant, and many would be killed trying to cross Route 20. None of us want another series of fatal accidents at that intersection.”

Another nearby resident, Mike Johnson, also addressed the traffic issue. Johnson, cousin of staunch drive-in opponent Pete MacKay (R-5), is a former outdoor theater projectionist and said even a responsibly-run drive-in is going to cause some problems.

“I’m concerned about mess,” Johnson stated. “When I was a movie projectionist, the theaters I worked in were well-run theaters, but there was trash blowing through the yards in the neighborhoods. It happens.”

“I’m not sure that that intersection can handle it,” warned Johnson, who also owns a nearby quarry. “I live there. I know how fast traffic travels on Highway 20.”

Noting Route 20 is virtually deserted at the time movies would be letting out, Bramlett asked, “If a four-lane highway can’t handle a short influx of traffic, what can?”

Johnson, however, pointed out the traffic issue at Conger Road and Route 20 would not be easy to address.

“That’s a federal highway, not just a state highway,” Johnson reminded board members. “In order to get anything done, it’s not going to be just IDOT [Illinois Department of Transportation]. It’s also going to be the federal government involved in this to make traffic flow.”

Johnson further alleged the theater may draw an undesirable element to the community.

“As the movie business changes and ratings get rougher at those theaters, crowds change, and the crowds get rougher,” Johnson added. “I really don’t wanna live in a neighborhood where the businesses have to hire security to protect their property.”

The Kerzes are requesting a special-use permit to allow for the outdoor theater in an Agricultural Priority District, along with a variance to waive paving requirements for parking.

The Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) voted unanimously in favor of both petitions. Although voting unanimously to recommend the variance, the zoning committee was locked at 3-3 as to whether to recommend granting the special-use permit. The full Winnebago County Board is set to vote on both matters June 28.

from the June 20-26, 2007, issue

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