Winnetka Park Board members set a Jan. 20 deadline to finalize a land swap contract with a lakefront property owner. Still, a lawsuit filed by 30-year Winnetka resident Rob Schriesheim alleges the deal violates the public trust and should be stopped.
The Winnetka Park District struck a deal in 2020 to swap 70 feet of beach at the southern end of Centennial Beach for 261 Sheridan Road, a property owned by billionaire Justin Ishiba, who also owns three parcels on the lakefront south of Centennial Park. Ishiba was seeking a proposed beach design that included a steel louvre wall and planter pockets. Still, district officials changed directions after residents protested, saying it would block their views of Lake Michigan and set a precedent for other lakefront landowners.
Three park board commissioners — David Seaman, Colleen Root and Cynthia Rapp — opposed the closing date because of the lawsuit, alleging that the land swap violates Illinois Park District Code. But the Winnetka Park Board voted to issue a closing date to Ishbia for the land swap contract over 261 Sheridan Road. The district previously eyed a Dec. 16 closing date but changed it to allow time for closing procedures, requests for proposals and to bring a coastal engineer in for the plans before a Jan. 21 workshop for the public, said Winnetka Park Board President Warren James.
“We have been served a complaint. I want finality on this property exchange; we all do. That is the essence of the motion,” said Seaman. “We might have finality because of the complaint.”
Board Counsel Steve Adams said the lawsuit doesn’t stop the board from closing the deal. But if a court order prohibiting the swap is issued, that would supersede any motions made by the board.
Paul Gaynor, Schreisheim’s lawyer, said he believes the exchange agreement violates the public trust doctrine, which states that submerged lands of Lake Michigan belong to the people and are kept in trust by the government for the people of Illinois.
Schreisheim has spoken several times about the land swap at park board meetings, saying the lack of transparency has made residents feel disenfranchised. The board has relied on Ishbia’s consultants to attempt to gain favor for the project.
“A large number of Winnetkans supports me. I am not a lone voice,” he said.
The board, which previously was against changes to the 2030 Lakefront Master Plan, voted unanimously in October to include a dog beach with secure fencing and public passage along the lakefront and pedestrian access with ADA compliance to Centennial Beach in the redevelopment. That allows the Director of Parks and Maintenance, Costa Kutulas, to ask for new Elder and Centennial design proposals that include a coastal engineer and ensure that any plan they decide on will allow beachgoers to travel along the lakeshore to and from Park District property.
The 2030 Lakefront Master Plan has been used throughout the lakefront renovation process as a guideline, including at the previously completed Lloyd Beach.
Root asked to be removed from the property exchange negotiations team, saying she believes the agreement lapsed long ago.
“We promised the public in August when we refused the last and best offer of Mr. Ishbia that we never again would tie the beach design with an effort to have Mr. Ishbia’s cooperation in closing the exchange agreement,” said Root. “It appears to me that we are going backwards to April 2022 and that we are sending a message that we are agreeable to tie design with the exchange agreement.”
The board replaced her with Christina Codo.
Root’s concerns led her to vote against resubmitting altered Elder 2A plans and to abstain from voting on a motion to use the headland beach system at Elder and Centennial, though she said she supports using it. Designs were initially removed from consideration by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers during the June 9 park board meeting.
Rapp also voted against submitting Elder 2A plans, saying, “I feel like it is premature to be saying ‘We’re going to race out and submit permits’ because I don’t feel like we’ve done due diligence on our plan. We don’t have a full plan.”
Adjustments to the original Elder 2A plan will remove the breakwater attached to steel groins on the southern end of Elder Beach, the proposed viewing platform on the northern Elder breakwater, the existing pier and the stormwater pipe. It also moves the stormwater pipe to the outer edge of the northern breakwater and adds an access path from the existing parking lot.
Kutulas previously stated that it could take up to six months for plans to be submitted and approved.