Editorial: Separate swimmers, boats at Picnic Grove Park
Who's in charge of the sandy-bottomed Fox River shallows just a few feet off the beach at Picnic Grove Park in Fox River Grove?
And what are people allowed to do there?
It turns out authorities don't have a ready answer to either question. That came into clear focus last week after a 6-year-old swimming at the beach ducked under the water and was struck by an 18-foot motor boat drawing up to shore.
People quickly spotted the child floating unconscious and began lifesaving efforts. He was flown by helicopter to a hospital and is expected to recover. The 19-year-old boat driver wasn't ticketed, with McHenry County sheriff's marine officers saying he was operating the boat slowly and cautiously.
The accident raises questions about why swimmers and boats occupy the same stretch of shoreline off a public beach. Confusion about jurisdiction, confusing signs and a lack of buoys or designated separate areas for swimmers and boaters indicate a need for quick action to keep people safe.
It's likely much of the problem stems from the belief that while Fox River Grove operates the park and beach, someone else -- the Fox Waterway Agency, McHenry County or Illinois Department of Natural Resources -- takes over at the water's edge.
As Fox River Grove Police Chief Eric Waitrovich explained it a day after the accident, the McHenry County sheriff's office enforces rules on the water; anything beyond the shoreline isn't the village's jurisdiction.
So while Fox River Grove posts at the park's boat ramp, "Nonmotorized watercraft only," no one takes that to mean boaters can't pull up and anchor off the sandy shore. Boaters talk about the spot on blogs, were present when our photographers stopped by in the days after the accident, and even show up on a Google Earth view of the park.
Once anchored, many of the boaters get out and swim, or people swim off the beach. A sign on shore says "Ice/water access prohibited." But if that means "No swimming," the village that posted the sign apparently considers what happens in the water to be out of its jurisdiction.
Where public parks allow both swimming and boat traffic, the two groups of users need to be separated for the sake of safety. And one agency or the other needs to be explicitly put in charge of enforcing rules, which need to be clearly stated.
The agencies realize they need to sort this out. "We're all going to learn about this," McHenry County Administrator Peter Austin said. We urge them to do so quickly, and to take whatever interim steps are needed to keep swimmers and boaters from a collision course.