Plans to refurbish Elder and Centennial beaches hit a major roadblock as nearly every member of the Winnetka Village Council publicly stated their opposition to a proposed wall that is included in the current designs for the project.
The comments were made during the council’s regular board meeting on Tuesday, June 7.
The feedback from the trustees – with the exception of Village President Chris Rintz and Trustee John Swierk, who were both absent – came almost two weeks after a Winnetka Park Board meeting in which dozens of residents shared their opposition to the proposed wall.
The wall in question is a louvered, or slatted, steel wall that is planned to encircle the combined beach, which includes the property at 261 Sheridan Road. That property is being obtained by the park district through a unique property exchange agreement that was made in October 2020.
While the plans were not on the board’s agenda, and no vote was taken, trustees heard from about 20 local residents over the course of nearly an hour, all of whom were opposed to the wall.
Against precedent, Trustee Bob Dearborn, acting as president pro tempore of the board, said that trustees were going to respond to what the residents were saying.
“Ordinarily, we would not comment on public comment,” he said, “but I think we will take a few minutes here and express our thoughts on the topic that was so eloquently covered tonight.”
Trustee Tina Dalman was the first to share her thoughts, starting by thanking those who shared their thoughts on the plans, both publicly and via emails to the board.
She acknowledged that she had already provided feedback to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers, who will be making a decision as to whether or not to approve the permits for the Elder and Centennial beach project.
“I have strong concerns about how this could impair the use and enjoyment of the lakeshore and create that precedent,” she said. “I think we’re aligned in that.”
Dalman also encouraged the public to keep providing feedback to the park board, as she’s noticed that feedback does make a difference.
“I have found over the years that, when public bodies do listen and consider public comments, it usually results in a better project,” she said.
The other trustees echoed Dalman’s comments, saying they also had submitted feedback to the IDNR and Army Corps.
Trustee Andrew Cripe said that while he’s against the wall, he believes the original plan – which didn’t include the property exchange agreement – was a good plan, and he added that Park Board President Warren James and Park District Executive Director John Peterson, both of whom were in the audience, are “good people” and have been “good partners to the Village Council.”
Ultimately, he said the wall is “a terrible idea.”
“But I like you a lot,” he told James and Peterson. “And I think your passion and your work for this village is phenomenal. And hopefully this wall will never see the light of day because nobody sitting on that beach will once it’s up.”
Trustee Rob Apatoff said that he was a “very strong supporter” of the original plan and was “surprised” to see the wall included as part of it.
He hopes the park board will take the comments to heart and make changes to the plans.
“I hope this show of clear sentiment about the wall they think long and hard about,” he said, adding that the Village Council is working on a letter that they will send to the IDNR and Army Corps expressing their opposition to the wall.
Dearborn also praised the work that has gone into the planning, but said he believes “the walls are really impeding the progress.”
“And that does not in any way impugn the integrity of the people that are leading this park district,” he said. “I think we hope that the right solution is arrived at.”
The audience applauded the Village Council when they finished offering their comments.
Following the trustees’ comments, both James and Peterson left the meeting, with James simply telling the board “thank you.”
Among those making public comments were Park Commissioner Colleen Root, the only commissioner who had expressed opposition to the wall. At the park board’s last meeting, she moved to pull the permit application, but it failed after it didn’t receive a second.
Root told the trustees that she was unaware of the wall being included in the plan until March of this year, a month after the permit application had been submitted. She said she had asked to see it but wasn’t provided that information until March.
“What I’m trying to suggest is that you will hear from others that this plan was well-vetted,” Root said. “That we saw it, we should know about it. That it was voted on and approved. I’m here to tell you that I sure didn’t know it.”
Speaking immediately after Root, James said the detailed plans of the project were presented at the park board’s April 2021 meeting, which he said was held via Zoom due to the pandemic.
He also said that he is doing his “darndest” to put forth the best possible plans.
“I am really determined to do the best thing we can at Elder and Centennial,” he said.
James also encouraged feedback from the public, inviting them to attend a special park board meeting Thursday evening where he said more details of the plan will be discussed.
He also stressed that none of the plans are final.
“Do come,” he said, speaking to the audience. “You’ll learn a lot more.”
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Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.