Roadside memorial for man sparks controversy
The cross is secured in a tree on private property about 40 feet east of the road. It has white and orange LED lights that are powered by a lawnmower battery and turn on automatically at dusk. Below, on the ground, an array of other crosses, curios and photographs are clustered around the tree.
The items were placed there as a memorial by the family of Shane Weber, 36, of Milton, who was killed on the curve Oct. 23 when his pickup truck went off the road.
The tree bearing Weber's memorial is still damaged from where his truck collided with it. Weber was found dead at the crash site. Crash reports indicate speed and alcohol were likely factors.
Weber's family, who chose to honor his wishes to be cremated, says it's the only place they can go to pay their respects to him.
"It feels like a place where you can actually talk to him. It's where he last was. You feel connected," said Weber's daughter, Ceaira Weber, 15, of Fort Atkinson.
Ceaira, along with her sister Cortney Calkins, 20, their mother Crystal Williams, Weber's ex-wife, and Weber's girlfriend Lori Blum of Milton, go to the crash site almost daily to decorate and tend the memorial. They also grieve. They have had the memorial since late October and have no plans to take it down.
"We plan on keeping it there forever," said Calkins.
One local official, town of La Prairie Chairman Allan Arndt, takes exception to that plan.
The memorial is off the township right of way, on undeveloped private land owned by the city of Janesville, but it's adjacent to Sharon Road, which is under the jurisdiction of the town of La Prairie.
While township, city of Janesville and Rock County have no formal rules on roadside memorials that mark fatal crashes, according to officials, Arndt says he considers the elaborately decorated site a distraction to motorists.
The memorial is on a sharp curve and faces northbound traffic coming off a stop at county O, where Read Road becomes South Sharon Road.
Along with lights that illuminate the memorial at night, Arndt says he's seen balloons and lit candles there. He said it seems to change every few days.
"It's like a web page," he said. "When it changes, you look at it to see what's different."
Arndt is concerned motorists could get distracted viewing the memorial and strike a pedestrian or another vehicle. A few weeks ago, he called Weber's family to express his concern.
Williams, who lives in Fort Atkinson, claims that was when Arndt gave the family a deadline of March to remove the memorial.
She said Arndt's phone call prompted the family and a group of friends—some of whom are members of the local charity motorcycle club Brothers in Chains—to turn out at a town of La Prairie board meeting last week.
Blum, who dated Weber for five years before his death, said the group wanted to show town officials how much Weber's memory meant to them.
Williams said she felt Arndt was being indifferent toward the family's grief.
"My children made that cross," Williams said. "You're telling us we have to have a time limit on how long we can grieve?"
Arndt denies giving any ultimatum or deadline to remove the memorial.
"My comment to them is if there are valuable things, those people should consider getting them before someone else picked them." Arndt said. "I may have thrown out a date that they didn't like, and then said ‘fine, what would be a good time?'"
The town of La Prairie hasn't made a formal decision or request to remove the memorial, and it hasn't decided whether to write a rule on roadside memorials, Arndt said.
Williams had wanted to work with a private landowner she thought owned the land where the memorial is located. When she checked county property records last week, however, she learned the city owns it.
Williams said she has approached City Manager Eric Levitt for permission to keep the memorial.
Levitt said the city is reviewing the request. He said the memorial is on an easement for an adjacent, privately owned quarry property that was once tabbed as a location for a city well.
Levitt said there are other small roadside memorials around Janesville. He said the city has no rules on the memorials, but that it tolerates them as long as they don't create visual obstructions for traffic. He said he had just learned the Weber memorial is lighted.
State law allows roadside memorials along state highways as long they are off the right of way and don't interfere with drivers' vision or traffic flow, according to a Wisconsin Department of Transportation fact sheet.
Arndt says there are other memorials along township roads, but Weber's is the biggest and most elaborate he's seen.
Rock County Sheriff's Capt. Jude Maurer said the sheriff's office hasn't had any complaints about the memorial being a problem.
Blum said the family is looking to the city, township and the county for some guidance. She said they would alter the memorial if it is needed. They're even offering to keep the site free of weeds and brush. They just want to keep the memorial.
"We want to compromise," Blum said. "We just want some guidelines."
Arndt said he's not pushing the town to take action, and he hinted he'd be willing to compromise on the issue, although he wouldn't be pinned down on specifics.
"As long as it's city property, I'll treat it like any private landowner, let them deal with it," he said. "It's a wait and see if I get complaints. Does it shrink in size? Is the rawness going to wear off it in a period of time?"