By Jamey Dunn
Gov. Pat Quinn today signed a law that could open up more land to the public for recreation.
Senate Bill 1042 will limit the amount of liability landowners will face if they open up their property to the public. After an Illinois Supreme Court ruling in the early 2000s, the legislature rewrote the law, known as the Recreational Use of Land and Water Act, to specifically protect people who allowed hunters onto their land. However the rewrite left everyone else out. After the change, Illinois was the only state in the country that did not grant some liability protections to property owners as an incentive for them to allow people to enjoy their land. Landowners would potentially be liable for any accident on their property, such as a hiker twisting an ankle.
“We should make it easier for generous people to open their lands to the public — not harder. This new law should create opportunities for rock climbers, hikers, kayakers and other outdoors enthusiasts across the state,” said Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon, a sponsor of the bill.
Proponents of the new law say the current regulations have a chilling effect on property owners. “There are some private landowners who simply could not afford to continue to allow public access because of rising liability insurance costs or concerns about litigation,” Illinois Department of Natural Resources Director Marc Miller said in a prepared statement.
Landowners will still be liable if they know of dangerous conditions on their property and fail to warn the public. “If you know that there is something on your property that is inherently dangerous, you shouldn’t make your land open without adequately notifying,” Harmon told Illinois Issues. “You don’t want to invite Timmy and Lassie on there with the open well.”
A coalition of environmental groups and advocates for public open spaces have been lobbying lawmakers for years on the issue. “Openlands worked with its partners for seven years to reinstate protections for generous private landowners who open their land to the public for recreation,” said Lenore Beyer-Clow, public policy director for Openlands, a conservation group with a focus on protecting land for public use. “We are excited that this law will offer new opportunities for people to connect to nature and enjoy Illinois’ beautiful open spaces.”
The bill passed through the legislature with no opposing votes. The new law will go into effect on January 1, 2014. “Our state is full of natural treasures, and many of those fall on private land,” Quinn said in a prepared statement. “Increasing landowner protections will boost the confidence of our residents who want to allow public access but have reservations about their own liability. This new law is a win-win for landowners and outdoor enthusiasts.”
For more on the law and what it could mean for those who enjoy the outdoors in Illinois, see the 2013 environmental issue of Illinois Issues.