Mayor John Antaramian said Wednesday he will recommend the city fence off Kenosha Harbor’s north pier from public access.
“At least that’s one of my recommendations to the council in the future as to what we need to get done, because I don’t think there is any other solution that solves this problem,” Antaramian said.
That problem is youths and others who continue to ignore posted warnings and jump off the pier into Lake Michigan, where they risk drowning amid powerful currents as occurred last week with a 17-year-old boy.
“The council may not want to do it, but the safest thing to do is close off the pier. I will take that to council, and they will make a decision,” he said.
Antaramian said the city, pending a lease agreement from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — which has jurisdiction over the property as a federal installation — will also place a throw-ring kiosk on the pier to aid potential rescues.
His rationale for also installing the kiosk is the pier still could be accessed by the public from the beach and water. “So, if council doesn’t want to go with the fencing, the kiosk will still be up,” Antaramian said.
Alderman David Bogdala, the leading proponent for the city improving lakefront safety at the pier as well as where the Pike River outlets into Lake Michigan north of the Pennoyer Park bandshell, opposes closing off access.
“That’s the first I heard of fencing anything off,” Bogdala said. “I won’t support fencing anything off, whether it’s the Pike River or the pier. That’s not a solution.”
He has led efforts on the council to add warning signs at the Pike River mouth, a location known for treacherous rip and outlet currents that have resulted in drownings and near-drownings over the years.
In early August, his resolution to reallocate $2,000 in park funds to pay for bilingual warning signs at the Pike outlet, for publicly accessible flotation devices at the pier and other safety measures, won council backing.
Kenosha Firefighters C.A.R.E. stepped up to pay $1,000 for two signs at the river, and the Kenosha Sportfishing and Conservation Association has offered to donate a kiosk holding a life ring and rope for the pier.
Earlier this week, the Public Works Committee, on which Bogdala serves, asked Public Works Department staff, at his urging, to bring the committee a recommendation using funds from the $2,000 to buy a second kiosk and extra throw rings.
‘Get it done!’
“I don’t care what the costs are. I don’t care about the liability. Get it done!” Bogdala said, adding that aldermen have done their part. He said he expected the City Attorney’s Office to begin two months ago to get the ball rolling with the Corps.
But that apparently didn’t happen until Aug 23, and, as of Wednesday, Bogdala still hadn’t been informed an agreement was in the offing.
Administration has cited increased liability if the city installs the kiosks. That appears to be related to the Corps of Engineers requiring $2 million in liability coverage and a written agreement from the city to maintain the kiosks.
Dave Benjamin, of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, put it similarly.
“The indications are these incidents happen because the public isn’t educated and neither are the politicians. A throw ring, a rope and a hook, I would think, is about $50,” said Benjamin, who has been involved in the Kenosha YMCA’s project to promote water safety in the schools.
“It’s time to stop talking about it and just do it,” Benjamin added. “Unfortunately, this boy probably would have survived if there was a throw ring there within 50 feet. If you smelled smoke right now, you would look for a fire alarm. If you saw someone drowning, you would look for a throw ring.”
Chance to save a life
Born and raised in Kenosha, Jerry Costabile, president of the Kenosha Sportfishing and Conservation Association and a charter boat captain, remembers hanging around the harbor all his life. And he recalls, too, jumping into the harbor with friends.
“A life ring gives the opportunity to save a life or rescue a person, where a sign just won’t do that,” Costabile said.”You know, we’ve all been guilty of being a pier jumper. I asked my dad, and he did it, too. As long as that pier and water are together we have to have a life-saving device available so we can help in a situation like we had last week.”
Robert Stanick, the Army Corps of Engineers area engineer for the Lake Michigan office, said the required lease is “a simple real estate agreement.”
“These are done relatively quickly. It could be a matter of a few weeks depending on the complexity of the situation. We did one in Port Washington that was completed in four weeks. It was mounting multiple life rings on a pier,” Stanick said.
He noted the city and the Corps already have a real estate agreement for the south pier of the harbor and might not need to do a new and separate one for the north pier. He said the city could ask to expand the existing lease to the north pier across the channel.
As for the amount of space sought for kiosk placements, Stanick said, “that’s very minor. That’s not a hold up at all.”
Stanick that the Corps has “a good working relationship” with the city, as with other communities with whom the Corps deals. He didn’t see the agreement needed by the city in this case as being particularly problematic.
Why such a lease?
The reason such agreements are necessary for the pier is fairly straightforward, from his perspective.
“It’s a federal structure, and we are responsible for maintaining it. There has to be some public record of people putting something on it. We have to have some say in what goes on our structure,” Stanick said.
“If there isn’t any type of process for installing any type of structure or any other item on our structure, then anybody could put anything up there,” he added. “It’s just a way of keeping track of what’s going on.”
He said the agreement sought by the city is a standard one used throughout the Corps.
“You can drive along the shore of Lake Michigan and see these life rings all along the harbors. We want to partner with our communities to increase safety on and around our structures within our limited authority,” Stanick said. “These types of agreements have proven to be the most effective method of meeting the recreational and safety needs.”
He added that the cost to the city from the Corps would be nominal and only to cover the paperwork.
Insurance cost likely to be small
Alderman Dan Prozanski, another council proponent for improving lakefront safety and chairman of the Finance Committee, indicated the cost of the liability coverage “is going to be small.”
“This would be an umbrella policy over what our current liability coverage is,” he said.
In January, the KSFCA inquired about a lease with the Corps through House Speaker Paul Ryan’s office. But Costabile, said Wednesday that, faced with needing $2 million in liability insurance, the 50-member nonprofit group couldn’t afford it.
However, he said the group still wants to donate the kiosk, life ring and rope to the city for placement near the east end of the north pier, with the possibility of a local construction company donating their efforts to install it.
Group willing to maintain it
The KSFCA raised funds and purchased the kiosk, ring and rope in 2013, but has not yet donated it to the city, while waiting for things to get ironed out.
“One of the things I dedicated myself to, and the club to, was to continue to move forward to get the life ring kiosk installed on the north pier. Our board agreed in April if this ever gets done, we will maintain our kiosk,” Costabile said.
However, Costabile acknowledged that is a change from the group’s earlier position and still had not been communicated to the city as of Wednesday afternoon.
“We haven’t been invited to meet with them, even though they keep quoting our donation,” he said.