For the past 16 years, Dale Carr has climbed into his green-and-yellow John Deere Gator from his wheelchair to navigate rural Union.
Until recently, when he was forced to abandon his last means of independent travel.
After pulling over Carr in September, Union police told him he no longer could use his all-terrain Gator because of a village crackdown on nonhighway vehicles in town.
A furious Carr family now blames a “power-tripping” village trustee who oversees Union’s ordinance committee and a complacent board for its failure to consider permissible exemptions that would legally allow Carr to use the all-terrain vehicle.
“Personally, I don’t pull the handicap card,” Carr said. “I don’t say, ‘Give me a break because I’m handicapped,’ but this is one time where I think I can.”
Carr has come to cherish his all-terrain Gator, which tops out at 15 mph, after losing the ability to walk in a work accident 27 years ago.
His wheelchair sits at a parallel height with the Gator, allowing for level access unmatched by his pickup truck, which requires more effort and the assistance of his time-strapped family.
The police warning forced Carr to stay at home, confined to a push wheelchair after using the Gator to complete local errands and even visits to current board members’ homes.
With a petition containing 45 signatures – including some from the board members’ relatives – the family made a formal appeal to trustees in October. They wanted a local ordinance that would exempt certain all-terrain vehicles in Union from state law that prohibits any nonhighway vehicle from operating on state, county and local roads.
But the village attorney rebuffed the family six months later in a letter that stated the board would not consider crafting a local ordinance because of public safety concerns.
Village President Robert Wagner, who declined to comment for this story, and others told Carr that he would have to use other motorized handicap equipment to navigate Union.
Carr now fears that the available alternatives would put his own safety at risk because Union’s sidewalks are disjointed and lack proper curb cuts, the family argues. They have begun researching attorneys for a possible lawsuit.
“If they are going to make this an issue, then the town needs to be made accessible or we need to seek legal action,” said his wife, Bonnie Carr. “I’m not doing this anymore.”
Jeopardizing public safety
Trustee Larry Beebe, the committee chairman who has angered the Carrs, said that the change in enforcement was made after numerous residents complained that a heightened presence of all-terrain vehicles and golf carts was creating a safety hazard.
Beebe couldn’t recall the number of residents who approached the board or the meeting where the enforcement discussion took place, but he clarified that the intent was never to target Carr.
“It’s just the responsibility of a board member, regardless of what committee you are chairing, that if you have a concern in town from residents, you need to act upon it and not ignore it,” Beebe said. “I don’t think that’s power tripping.”
Under state law, a local government can decide to permit nonhighway vehicles, such as a Gator, on its local roads if officials determine that the public’s safety isn’t jeopardized.
Union’s part-time police department, complete with four officers from Genoa and Marengo, so far has been issuing warnings to the few people they have caught riding all-terrain vehicles in town, said Lt. Ty Lynch, who also serves as Genoa’s police chief.
Lynch said he personally has warned two people, one of whom was Carr.
“We have been getting complaints of people on these four-wheelers and golf carts and ATVs,” Lynch said. “We’ve been trying to add some enforcement and doing some education.”
The residents at Sun City Huntley are allowed to drive golf carts throughout the retirement community’s roadways and the side streets leading from it to the Regency Square strip mall, Huntley Deputy Police Chief Michael Klunk said.
Huntley was one of the first in the state to allow nonhighway vehicles on its local roads.
Carr himself found that 19 other communities, including Holiday Hills, have similar ordinances.
The Huntley exemption is restrictive: Residents can’t leave Sun City’s golf club and cross or drive along Route 47 – a state highway.
The village could expand the exemptions, Klunk said, but officials would have to ensure that the vehicles aren’t crossing over state, county or township roads.
But Union officials are unlikely to craft such exemptions, adamant that Carr can use other motorized handicap equipment regardless of Union’s infrastructure needs.
“I can’t do anything about that,” Beebe said. “It is what it is, as far as infrastructure. ... We are trying to keep the town safe and do what’s right.”
The village’s stance has confounded Carr.
“You can’t say, ‘Well, you can’t be driving that Gator in this town, and you should be using the handicap means of transportation,’ yet this town is not accessible,” he said.