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Equestrians want trail user fees ended

Tuesday, December 03, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times
by Donna Vickroy

Susan Collins loves horses. She also loves the many trails that wind through the Cook County Forest Preserve District, particularly those in the Palos Trail System.

What she doesn’t love is that she and her fellow equestrians have to pay a fee to use those trails.  

“Equestrians are the only user group that has to pay to use the multi-use trails,” said Collins, president of the Palos Hills Horsemen’s Association. A retired elementary school teacher, Collins and other equestrians have been fighting the county over the fees for 11 years.

“For the most part we have a very good relationship with the forest preserve district,” she said. “But it’s not fair that we have to pay to use the same trails everyone else uses for free.” The fight comes indoors Tuesday when Cook County Commissioners are expected to vote on a proposed amendment to eliminate the horse licensing fees during a special meeting before its annual vote on the 2014 budget.

 Gorman is proposing to eliminate all equestrian trail riding fees. The forest preserve folks are dead set against it. They’re proposing the alternative: that the money collected be used just for equestrian-related things. But there’s a chance neither amendment will pass and things will simply remain as they are.

Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman, 17th District, and Commissioner Jeffrey R. Tobolski , 16th District, are cosponsoring the measure that would eliminate the equestrian fees.

“These fees go way back,” Gorman said. “At the time, equestrians were considered ‘unique’ users of the trails. “But the equestrians in my constituency believe they are being discriminated against, so I proposed the change,” Gorman said.

Arnold Randall, general superintendent of the FPDCC, said equestrians are a valuable part of the forest preserve community, but one that has been paying a fee to use the trails since at least the 1940s.

Currently, an annual riding license for Cook County residents costs $30 per horse and $4 per rider. Non-residents pay $45 and $4 respectively.

“This is nothing new,” Randall said. “We think it’s a pretty reasonable amount when you consider that there are some special issues with horses. These are 800 to 1,200-pound animals.”

He added the district does a lot for horse riders, from maintaining trails to installing signs and educating the public about safety issues when it encounters horses on the trails.

Still, he said, he recognizes that this group feels it is being discriminated against, so this year, the district began offering a $4/$5 day pass for those who didn’t want to pay the annual fee.

“The day pass was created specifically at the request of this (Palos area) group,” he said. “We are committed to working with everyone, including horse riders.”

Randall added that equestrians are not the only forest preserve users who pay a user fee. Picnickers must pay for permits and people who patronize aquatic centers pay an admission fee, he said.

“Everything we do cannot be managed by taxes,” Randall said. “Horseback riding is a very special, very specific thing.” The district issued some 700 tags for equestrians in 2013, with 140 of them being purchased by riders in the Palos area.

“The Palos Trail System is among the best in the system,” he said, adding that the fees collected help to ensure that. The FPDCC has proposed an alternative measure that would redirect the $40,000 that is collected annually through the fees from the general fund into a fund that directly benefits horse riders, such as in the installation of more hitching posts, Randall said.

 It’s uncertain whether either plan has a chance of passage on Tuesday. Collins, who has served on the forest preserve district’s master trail plan and recreational committees, said DuPage, Kane, Will and McHenry counties do not charge equestrian fees. “Only Lake County does,” she said. “But it also has equestrian-only trails.”



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