The Winnetka Park District had long been waiting for the chance to combine Elder and Centennial beaches.
So after the “once-in-a-generation” opportunity was clinched in October 2020, the park district planned to sacrifice a longtime amenity.
One problem: It failed to tell that amenity’s users.
Now, patrons of the dog beach, which has operated at Centennial’s south end for 26 years, are fighting for a compromise that keeps a dog-friendly waterfront option in Winnetka.
“They were mad. And I said, I’m mad about it too,” said Randy Whitchurch, a Winnetka resident who mobilized his fellow dog-park users. “It was almost as if it was done in an underhanded way. Yeah, the plan was published, but no one made an announcement that they would take this 26-year-old amenity away.”
Whitchurch and 20 dog-park users confronted the Park Board at its meeting on Aug. 26.
After hearing the testimony, the board approved in a 5-2 vote the development of a committee to explore the needs of dog recreation in Winnetka.
Park Board President Warren James, who voted against forming the committee, told The Record that committee members will review three options that are not mutually exclusive: 1.) An off-beach dog park at the old landfill site on Willow Road, 2.) A dog beach relocation to Tower Road Beach, where the village reportedly will allow use of a portion of its property, and 3.) Off-season use — Sept. 15 to May 15 — of the current dog beach at Centennial Beach.
James said the committee will include two Park Board members — Colleen Root, who voted for the committee, and Mickey Archambault, who voted against it — as well as a handful of residents and a nonvoting liaison from the Village of Winnetka.
Whitchurch said he hopes to be named to the committee.
“We’re going to work with the village and park board and find a solution that works for everybody,” said Whitchurch, who favors a Centennial timeshare. “I have a strong opinion on where (the dog park) ought to be. But I’m not the only one who has an opinion here.”
During the Aug. 26 meeting, according to the minutes, a number of commissioners expressed hesitation or refusal to alter the decisions and plans developed by a previous Park Board.
James told The Record that opportunity to overhaul Elder-Centennial beach was too great and characterized the residents’ dog-park response as a misunderstanding.
“The land exchange agreement is a terrific opportunity for the village and an opportunity to consolidate two beaches,” he said. “What was misunderstood was the master plan did say no decisions have been made, but it also said that if two parks can be consolidated then the uses will be nonmotorized (water recreation) and swimming. This is the best swimming beach opportunity in all of Winnetka.”
While the information to remove the dog beach was implied in park district documents, it was not overtly announced to dog-park users or the community at-large. Whitchurch said if he had not stumbled upon it, the dog beach would have disappeared.
While viewing the district’s plan for the Elder-Centennial combination online, Whitchurch said he noticed there was no dog park listed or shown in the images. He confirmed the proposed change with park officials, he said, and then began informing other dog-park users in July.
“I began collecting petitions to save the dog beach and every time I collected a signature I asked if they knew about it. Nobody knew about it. Absolutely nobody,” he said.
James told The Record that the dog beach’s fate was discussed several times in 2019, when the Park Board regularly discussed updates to its lakefront master plan, called Winnetka Waterfront 2030.
“We’ve had the master plan on the website for five years, extensive discussion of this in 2019. It was on the table,” he said. “ … We meet every other week with 22 meetings a year. We weren’t trying to hide anything.”
On its website, the Winnetka Park District does not host video recordings of its Park Board meetings. In published meeting minutes reviewed by The Record, the Park Board mentions the dog beach during a March 2019 meeting when trustees noted that if a land acquisition comes to fruition the district needs “to communicate what will happen to the dog beach.”
If other discussion took place about the dog beach during 2019 board meetings, it is not detailed in published meeting minutes; however, extensive discussions took place about a possible off-beach dog park.
The lakefront master plan states that “no changes will be made to the current dog beach use” in the short-term, but “the district should monitor community pet owner needs and trends to determine” if a dog beach or “another large open space” is most appropriate.
Then, on page 131 of the 163-page master plan, a matrix of improvements to Elder-Centennial notes the combined beach would “require relocation of dog run to alternate space within the Village.”
In a diagram of proposed changes to a combined Elder-Centennial beach, the dog beach is neither present nor referenced.
The Park Board approved a multi-million-dollar land-swap agreement in late 2020 to ensure the combination of Elder and Centennial. In the park district’s press release announcing the news, there is no mention of the dog beach, and dog-beach users reportedly were never directly contacted.
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