Group opposes RV park coming to Mercer County

Barry McNamara
Special to the Times Record
Off-highway vehicles, or OHVs, are parked in this 2021 photo. Rural communities across the country are wrestling with the economic perks and environmental drawbacks of opening up their roads to ATVs. Interest in ATVs has only intensified as more people got outdoors during the pandemic.

ALEDO — The Citizens For Peaceful Country Living and motor sports in rural Mercer County are, perhaps quite predictably, at a crossroads.

Determining who has the right of way is an ongoing topic of discussion, both privately and in public. The most recent public discussion came Nov. 30 at a meeting of the Preemption Township Board, and “it was a hot meeting,” said rural Mercer County resident Maureen Conway, who leads the citizens group. “It was a Robert’s Rules of Order debacle.”

There are two major issues at play: one that is already occurring, and another that is anticipated.

What is already happening, says the citizens group, is utility task vehicles such as side-by-sides are running free on Mercer County roads, despite regulations in place in several townships to stop them.

Also known as ROVs (recreational off-highway vehicles), UTVs have powertrains similar to those of ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) and have much of their rugged-terrain capability, but the term “all-terrain vehicle” is conventionally restricted to four-wheel, straddle-seat vehicles. The ability of multiple users to sit next to each other lends a distinguishing name to side-by-sides.

Group: UTVs violate law, unsafe 

The group’s position is that UTV use on many county roads is not only a violation but also creates unsafe conditions and unnecessary wear and tear on the mainly gravel surfaces.

A vote is necessary to allow UTV use on roads, since Illinois state law states: “Except as otherwise provided in this section, it is unlawful for any person to drive or operate a non-highway vehicle upon any street, highway, or roadway in this state. If the operation of a non-highway vehicle is authorized under subsection (d), the non-highway vehicle may be operated only on streets where the posted speed limit is 35 miles per hour or less.”

Subsection (d) states that a unit of local government, such as a township, “May authorize, by ordinance or resolution, the operation of non-highway vehicles on roadways under its jurisdiction if the unit of local government determines that the public safety will not be jeopardized.”

Conway cited statistics compiled by the Mercer County Sheriff’s Office that show the office fielded 80 complaints this year related to ATVs and side-by-sides through late October, up 207% from a normal year of 26 complaints.

Preemption Township in Mercer County is the site of a proposed RV park with off-road trails for riding UTVs and motorcycles. Some township residents oppose the park and want the zoning to remain agricultural.

An RV park with trails

The anticipated problem is a related one — the planned opening next spring of Mercer County Motor Sports, which could generally be classified as a campground or RV park with off-road trails for riding UTVs and motorcycles.

“It’s an outdoor motor park,” said Jason Kellett, who runs Landmark Landscaping in Aledo and whose son, Evan, is slated to manage the park, which Kellett hopes will open April 1. “It’s cheap entertainment. For a charge of $25 per unit, you show up, you sign in, you get to go in and ride – all day if you want. There will be A, B and C trails – easy to hard. There will be steep hills, easy hills.”

It will be one-stop shopping, of sorts, for people who want to be outside all day and perhaps spend multiple days at the site.

“There will be concessions on site, but you can bring in a cooler, too,” Kellett said. “At the end of the day, if you want to camp, we’ll start with 20 permanent sites, and we’ll build up from there. We want people to come and camp, whether that’s by the day, by the month or the year. All those will be available.”

The land to be used for the park is a 160-acre rectangle, a quarter-mile wide and a mile long. Located two miles west of Matherville, it borders property owned by a few area residents, including Conway.

“We didn’t know it was up for auction, but we also didn’t know that the purchasers would use it for anything other than AG-1 purposes, which is how it’s been platted since the middle of the 1800s,” Conway said.

The purpose of the agricultural-1 zoning district is to conserve and protect open land uses, foster orderly growth in rural areas and prevent urban agricultural land use conflicts.

Jason Kellett bought a 160-acre rectangle, a quarter-mile wide and a mile long, located two miles west of Matherville in Preemption Township. He wants to open Mercer County Motor Sports, a campground or RV park with off-road trails for riding UTVs and motorcycles.

Kellet: 'Everybody had an opportunity to buy that land'

“(Running us out) doesn’t work like that,” said Kellett of objections to the park. “Everybody had an opportunity to buy that land. It was for sale for two years.”

A pivotal movement in plans to move forward with the project is a decision by the Mercer County Zoning Committee on whether or not to re-zone the property, making Kellett’s vision possible. Scheduled zoning meetings in October and November were not held, delaying the decision until Dec. 16, at the earliest. However, it’s quite possible that the zoning issue will not come up for a vote until early 2022.

Kellett said he is not deaf to the concerns raised by the citizens group, including those about the nearby roads, both in terms of flying dust and wear and tear.

“They say, ‘What about the roads? Who will monitor them?’” he said. “We wanted to pave the road. We offered to give them $20,000 this year to tar and chip the road, and then similar gifts the next four years, totaling $100,000. Eventually, we want to tar and chip it all the way to Matherville. ... They did not accept it. They thought it would open up a can of worms. Our stance is, we really want to do business in your township. Tar and chipping would prevent all the blowing dust. But you said ‘No.’”

Essentially, said Conway, “(Officials) rejected the check because they felt it wasn’t good business.” She also called the amount “a drop in the bucket” for what would ultimately be required for roadwork.

Kellett also acknowledged that “noise could be a factor with the motorcycles but, in my opinion, not by the side-by-sides, which are much quieter.”

Making Mercer County a destination

His position is similar to the philosophy that’s already drawn UTVs to the area — there’s a desire to make Mercer County a destination for visitors, a feeling seconded by an organization called Visit Merco.

“We’re looking to draw people in,” said Kellett. “We’re not looking for a fight. I do understand some of the concerns, but it could be worse. It could be a hog confinement area going up there.”

“We don’t care if they buy the land,” said Conway, “but we don’t want that land to be zoned for recreational use, disturbing the serenity. We don’t mind having new neighbors. We’d take ’em a pie and a cake. That’s what we do out here. It’s the use of the land that we object to.”

Issue tabled in Preemption Township

The Nov. 30 meeting in Preemption Township — which includes Matherville — was not the first time the UTV issue has come before its board this year. In August, by a 3-2 margin, the board voted to allow the use of UTVs on township roads. The Citizens for Peaceful Country Living “respectfully” asked the board to “reconsider putting it for another vote,” said Conway. At first, her group was denied, but the board acquiesced.

Another board vote was expected to occur Nov. 30, but the issue was instead tabled and will now likely be put on a ballot next spring for the general public to decide.

Three other area townships — Greene, Mercer and Perryton — have also voted on the issue, choosing not to allow UTVs on their roads. Those three townships, along with Preemption, essentially form a large square in the north-central section of the county.

The website for Visit Merco states that “in order for Mercer County to grow and prosper, attention needed to be paid to marketing, tourism and economic development. Visit Merco was developed to begin this work based off of what Mercer County had to offer in terms of tourism, recreation and play.”

The main message at the website encourages potential visitors to check out such local attractions as rhubarb pie at a local festival, the Big River State Forest, and “the MerCo trails.”

Conway says visitors are making the roads in her part of the county their own MerCo trails, rather than waiting for off-road trails to be created. This summer, she said, side-by-sides could be seen “flying by,” sometimes by the “caravan.”

A map even exists of those road/trails, which Conway said township supervisor Pete Adams “pulled out” at the Nov. 30 meeting.

“We’d never seen that before,” she said.

Upholding the law

Those in favor of allowing off-road vehicles on Mercer County’s roads have encouraged law enforcement personnel to go easy on offenders or look the other way.

Mercer County Sheriff Dusty Terrill addressed those concerns during a Nov. 5 discussion with Conway’s group.

“The owner of The Barn Bar and Restaurant (in another Mercer County community, New Boston) asked me to meet with him, and I try to meet with any citizen who requests,” said Terrill. “I did meet with him. He asked if I could go easy on stopping side-by-siders, as that hurts his business. I explained that I have to uphold the law. Also, a Mercer County board member approached me at the time of the county board vote on side-by-side use of county roads and asked me ignore side-by-sides on the roads. Again, I explained that I had to uphold the laws of the state.”

“Dusty is caught politically,” said Conway.

Terrill told the citizens group that with a reduced staff, his officers can simply not be everywhere they’re needed to enforce such violations, but he told the group to remain vigilant

“Yes, keep reporting them,” he said. “You can contact the state police, as well. They would send someone out to the site, as well. Their jurisdiction is mainly on the four-lane roads, however. ... Do not confront and do not attempt citizen’s arrests.”

Kellett’s outdoor motor park would give visitors to Mercer County a way to ride their off-road vehicles legally, assuming the property gets zoned accordingly.

“Evan’s looking to be a pillar of the community,” he said of his son. “He’s always rode since day one. This is a story of a local Mercer Countian starting a business he’s always been passionate about – neighborhood kid starts Mercer County Motor Sports.”

Conway’s reply on behalf of the citizens group?

“They hope that we’ll settle down, and in the spring they can re-zone the land,” she said. “But we’re in this for the long game.”