Chain boaters oppose tougher regulations pushed after Petite Lake tragedy
State lawmaker calling for tougher regulations, but boaters say that's not the answer
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The Chain O' Lakes has long been known as a summertime place to party.
With 15 lakes, 7,100 acres of water, 45 miles of river, and countless bars catering to boaters, it is the busiest inland recreational waterway in the United States. It also has the reputation of being one of the craziest.
But the 2012 death of 10-year-old Tony Borcia of Libertyville, who was struck and killed by an impaired boater while tubing with his family on Petite Lake, has launched an attempt to reign in that reputation and reduce some of that craziness.
A state lawmaker from Lake County is proposing tougher safety regulations that could include state licensing for boaters and linking alcohol-related boat crimes to the loss of driving privileges on land. Separately, a lawsuit blames Tony's death on a lack of boating speed limits and boat length restrictions on the Chain.
"This makes the operators of boats more responsible and more informed," said the bills' sponsor, state Sen. Julie Morrison, a Deerfield Democrat and Tony's aunt. "It's personal, obviously. But I think it's given me a different perspective."
Morrison is hosting a Senate committee hearing on the issue from 1 to 3 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29, at the Lake County Central Permit Facility on Winchester Road in Libertyville.
She'll pitch proposals for new boating laws to Lake County leaders, but Morrison is also likely to hear opposition from a vocal group of boaters who say imposing tougher regulations is not the answer.
A website called "Boaters United" has quickly gained more than 1,400 friends on Facebook, and people have used the forums at the "Fun on the Fox" website to speak out about the issue.
They have complained about not being included in talks regarding new boating laws and argued that any law enacted to curb boating punishes everyone for the actions of a few.
"Educate the boaters and discuss licenses or safety classes, but just throwing random laws out there won't help anyone," said Mike Deron, owner of funonthefox.com. "We support boating safety, but let's do it in a smart way."
It was the tragic fatality on July 28, 2012 that has cast a large spotlight on the Chain's safety issues.
That's when the 29-foot cigarette boat nicknamed "Purple Haze," driven by then-50-year-old David Hatyina of Bartlett, struck and killed Tony Borcia. The boy was hit soon after he fell off an inner tube pulled behind a rented pontoon boat driven by his father, Jim.
Hatyina later pleaded guilty to aggravated driving under the influence after alcohol and cocaine were found in his system. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Contrary to the belief of some, attorney Matthew Dudley of Libertyville said, Jim Borcia's blood alcohol content also was tested. It came back negative for drugs and alcohol.
"Had Jim known the statistics that the Fox Waterway Agency had about Petite Lake, he would have never gone there," Dudley said. "It's one of the smallest lakes on the Chain, but it has 20 percent of the accidents."
The Borcia family has filed wrongful death lawsuits against Hatyina and his girlfriend, Renee Melbourne, who was on the boat at the time of the crash.
The Fox Waterway Agency was later added to the lawsuit for not enacting rules on the Chain, such as limits on speed and boat size, and for not creating safe areas for people using innertubes. Spring Lake Marina in Antioch, which rented the boat to the Borcias, was added to the lawsuit because, Dudley said, operators told Jim Borcia to tube on Petite Lake despite the dangers.
The family also started the Y-noT Project Ltd., a nonprofit corporation dedicated to stopping intoxicated boaters. It has filed a writ of mandamus against the Fox Waterway Agency that, if approved in court, would force the state-funded agency to adopt regulations cracking down on alcohol-related boating on the Chain.
More than 22,000 Chain O' Lakes boat stickers were issued by the Fox Waterway Agency in 2012. Of the 210 arrests statewide for operating a watercraft under the influence of alcohol that year, 79 were on the Chain, the Lake County Sheriff's Office reported.
To combat some of those problems, Morrison has proposed four safety bills at the state level that boaters have generally opposed.
One, signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in late July, requires a boater in a crash that causes injury or death to submit to an alcohol test. Boaters who refuse or are over the legal threshold of 0.08 percent could have their driver's license suspended for least six months. Morrison's other proposals haven't yet seen serious debate from lawmakers but will be the focus of the Aug. 29 forum. They would call for a person found guilty of operating a watercraft under the influence to have their driver's license suspended for three months, prohibit anyone born on or after Jan. 1, 1990, from operating a watercraft without a valid boat safety certificate from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and require operators of a watercraft towing a person behind a boat to display an orange flag.
The proposals could change before lawmakers eventually debate them, Morrison said, adding she's offering them in the interest of safety and an effort to reduce boating tragedies.
"I hope this is a discussion we can have," she said. "The only people who should be concerned are people who value the opportunity to drive drunk."
If enacted, the laws would affect boaters throughout the state.
Boater Chris Allen — who started the Facebook site "Boaters United" in response to Morrison's legislation — said while there may be merit to some of the language in those proposals, they lead to the downfall of boater rights.
"You have a senator in Julie Morrison, who is obviously very hurt and grieving the loss of a nephew, coming to punish all the boaters on the Chain," Allen said. "Ninety-nine point nine percent of the boaters on the Chain are not bad people, but she made us targets and make us all look like terrible people."
The proposals are "overkill," he said, and overregulation is not the way to make the Chain a safer waterway.
"Creating a boating license could help reduce crashes in certain situations, but it could also create a false sense of security for experienced boaters," he said. "Just because someone takes a class and gets a certificate, it doesn't mean they are an experienced boat operator. That takes a lot of time and experience behind a wheel."
Other opponents said while education and licensing could help, linking a boater to his or her driver's license isn't the answer.
"(Legislators) should look at other areas in the nation who also have the same problems we have to see how they are dealing with them," funonthefox.com's Deron said. "But throwing out proposals like (Morrison) is can have a lot of unintended consequences. Instead, do some research, see how other places are attacking the same problems and see what is working for them."
State Sen. Pam Althoff, a McHenry Republican on the legislative committee to review Morrison's proposals, said she generally supports the concepts but knows reaching out to boaters is crucial.
"We have always had significant pushback," she said.
Althoff said lawmakers are not out to keep people from having fun or prevent them from having alcohol, and lawmakers have to consider businesses that make a lot of their income catering to boaters.
Althoff said finding the balance between fun and safety on the water is a challenge that's been around a long time. Morrison's proposals have gotten a lot of attention, but state conservation officials have proposed similar ideas — and heard similar criticism.
"I've been around for 10 years," Althoff said. "This is no different."
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