Should boat sizes be limited on the Chain, Fox? Owners, waterway agency disagree with state senator's plan for a cap
An Illinois state senator whose nephew was killed in a tragic boating crash in 2012 is pushing legislation to limit boat sizes on the Chain O' Lakes.
Sen. Julie Morrison, a Democrat from Deerfield, wants to prohibit boats larger than 40 feet from operating there for personal use. Her aim is to reduce congestion on the waterway and make it safer.
"A 40-foot-plus speed boat is more appropriate on Lake Michigan," she said. "It's too big, too fast, and not made to just sit and idle on the Chain."
But some boat owners and the agency that oversees the Chain say Morrison's proposal misses the mark in increasing boater safety.
Fox Waterway Agency Chairman Wayne Blake said Morrison is wrong to push for legislation without first seeking input from his board.
"If we saw a real problem on the Chain, we would address it like we have done in the past," Blake said. "My instinct is that the reason the state made the Fox Waterway Agency was to enact restrictions we felt we needed. That's why we are here."
Senate Bill 56 would outlaw boats of 40 feet or larger that are used primarily for personal use. It would provide an exception for boats and watercraft used for dredging, construction, lake maintenance or similar activities. It would not affect boats that carry passengers for hire.
The proposal is in its infant stages and is being rewritten to correct some language, Morrison said.
Morrison's 10-year-old nephew, Antonio "Tony" Borcia of Libertyville, was killed when he fell off a tube being towed by a boat and was struck by a boat driven by Bartlett resident David Hatyina.
Hatyina, who was driving a boat shorter than 40 feet, pleaded guilty in 2014 to aggravated driving under the influence and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Morrison said her nephew's death opened her eyes to some safety issues on the Chain, and her ultimate goal is to make the waterway safer.
"I don't want to discourage the activities on the Chain, but there is a concern about the congestion there," she said. "Those owners spend a lot of money on those boats, but the Chain is not the place for them."
Of the more than 22,000 boat stickers sold on the Chain in 2018, only eight boats registered above 40 feet, Fox Waterway Agency officials said. Two would be excluded because they are designed to carry passengers for hire.
Ron Michalek, the owner of a 42-foot boat that would be banned under the legislation, said it's not the size of the boat that makes boating unsafe.
"The people with the bigger boats are the ones who observe safety rules, take safety courses and watch out for other boat drivers," he said. "I don't think the concentration should be on the size of the boat but rather boaters out there and their negligence."
Michalek, former president of the Northern Illinois Offshore Club, said such boats can cost as much as $500,000. With that price tag, owners take safety seriously, he said.
Uneducated or impaired drivers and high speeds are far more important issues, Michalek said.
"The fact of the matter is that some boats are unsafe and there are drivers who do not know the difference between the port and starboard," he said. "There are a lot of things they should concentrate on (more) than 'let's get the bigger boats off the lake.'"
Blake said his agency was created to self-regulate the 13 lakes on the Chain and the Fox River in Lake and McHenry counties. Part of the directive is to create regulations to ensure safe boating, he said.
"I don't know if the problem here is the size of the boat or more about how the speed boats are traveling or whether the driver is impaired," he said. "There are a lot of other factors in play than just the length of the boat."
Blake also said he didn't like that the legislation is specifically written to affect the Chain and the Fox River.
"If they'd like to stop 40-foot boats from going on all lakes in the state, that's their prerogative," he said. "The way this reads, putting a 40-foot boat on any other lake in the state is legal, but not on the Chain O' Lakes or Fox River."