Union allows alternative travel for disabled residents

Village board's reversal comes after pressure from federal disability attorneys

UNION – Under pressure from federal disability attorneys, the Union Village Board recently allowed disabled residents to ride all-terrain vehicles along local roads and reversed a stance that sparked controversy over equal rights in the rural town.

Wheelchair-using resident Dale Carr, who lost the ability to walk in a work accident 27 years ago, will again be able to use his John Deere Gator to navigate Union nearly 10 months after the Northwest Herald first reported his frustration with village officials.

The subsequent pressure from federal attorneys versed in disability law and media scrutiny, which also brought Chicago news outlets to small-town Union, all played a role in the board’s unanimous decision earlier this week to allow disabled residents to use non-highway vehicles on local roads.

“It’s been tough ... but we made a good ordinance,” Village President Robert Wagner said. “We tried to make something that was fair to him, yet restrictive that not anybody can get on a four-wheeler and drive downtown.”

The board’s vote this week comes nearly 18 months after Union police warned Carr that he could no longer ride his Gator in town – something he had been doing as an independent form of travel for the past 16 years.

An officer told him the board was increasing enforcement on a state prohibition of non-highway vehicles because of the numerous teenagers riding all-terrain vehicles through town.

After Carr told officials the state law allows for local exemptions, he received a letter from the village attorney early last year that board members would not craft a local ordinance because of safety concerns.

After going public last summer, Carr and his family took to Facebook to rally supporters, brought the Gator to community events to protest and connected with attorneys from the Chicago firm Equip for Equality to push Union for fairer treatment.

Carr also watched the Johnsburg board pass an ordinance this winter that allowed residents there to drive golf carts, all-terrain vehicles and other non-highway vehicles along local roads with posted speed limits of 35 mph or less.

“As they were concerned, the situation was done and over when they sent me that letter,” Carr said. “The work with my attorney and the Facebook group to keep this issue alive was what caused this final ordinance.”

Union’s ordinance was crafted to only allow residents with a disability that substantially impairs their ability to drive to ride non-highway vehicles, said Village Attorney Tom Schmitt.

A resident would need a doctor to attest for their disability and pay a $150 annual inspection fee to secure the proper permit, the ordinance states. A disabled resident could only travel on village roads with posted speed limits of 35 mph or less and would be prohibited from driving during nighttime hours.

“We don’t want a lot of young kids, rabble-rousers on the highway with these types of vehicles. We will not allow that,” Schmitt said. “We made the one exception, which we felt was reasonable.”

Carr said he would be “tolerant of their ordinance,” but he criticized it for having an excessive annual fee and a prohibition that will leave him unable to travel at night.

He vowed to continue his fight to make Union completely compliant with federal disability regulations, arguing that the village’s infrastructure doesn’t accommodate the disabled.

It’s a battle he says he needs to fight for the disabled community.

“I do this, not for me, but for the child in a wheelchair, the citizen who uses a walker and the person who needs an alternative means to travel,” Carr said. “I will continue to fight this battle because it’s the right thing to do.”