Winnetka, News

Winnetka to expand lakefront-construction permitting; Trustees debate scope of transparency

Construction along Winnetka’s lakefront will undergo more local scrutiny under a temporary Village ordinance.

The ordinance, which builds out the Village’s permitting process for lakefront projects, received preliminary approval from the Village Council on Tuesday, March 7.

Led by Village attorney Peter Friedman, Village staff drafted the ordinance in response to the council’s January discussions on better understanding its role in lakefront regulation. After a staff and trustee review, the council wanted to cover “gaps” in the Village Code regarding construction on lakefront property.

The “stopgap” code amendments detailed in the ordinance will be in place until the Village can fully review its code and approve amendments regulating the lakefront and lakeside bluffs. President Chris Rintz said the process will take months if not until 2024.

Among the amendments, a Village of Winnetka permit is required for any construction near the lakefront that also requires a permit from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

To apply for a Village permit, property owners need to file the same paperwork as they did for any of the other regulatory agencies, as well as proof of approval.

“So we’re not adding anything, we’re not adding paperwork,” Friedman said.

The amendments put the village’s engineering department in charge of the permitting and it must respond to the applicant within 14 days. The department will consider seven standards for approval, including project scope and dimensions and public safety.

The Village Code will also now reflect the Village of Winnetka’s boundaries — half a mile into Lake Michigan — as they are identified in the town charter, officials said.

Village Director of Engineering Jim Bernahl said the amendments will cover projects like beachfront protection mechanisms, such as jettys or groins, and boat launches. Officials say they expect fewer than 10 applications per year.

While trustees were supportive of the changes, their discussion got stuck on a question of transparency.

Trustee Bob Dearborn suggested adding a layer of transparency to better inform the public, saying that a lack of public information was “a crux of public consternation.” Dearborn was referring to the Ishbia family’s lakefront development, the communication of which — primarily from the Winnetka Park District — has received plenty of public criticism.

Trustee Andy Cripe contended that the permitting process already includes transparency, such as the searchable database on the Army Corps of Engineers’ website. Cripe said he was concerned that too much transparency could lead to the public harassment of applicants.

“As much as I care about the lake, what goes on with the people in the town, which has been demonstrated by the shenanigans with the park district, is so much more important,” Cripe said. “… You should never create a situation where the homeowner has to come in here not knowing what the hell the rules are and (asking), ‘please, please don’t make me look like too much of a jerk.’

He added, “If you don’t think there’s transparency, get on the (expletive phrase) website for the Army Corps of Engineers and search it. It’s there. Because someone says I didn’t know, that’s different than saying we’re trying to hide it.”

Dearborn said he doesn’t believe it is reasonable to expect all residents to visit the Army Corps of Engineers website to find out what’s happening in their community.

“You’re saying you want Joe Smith from the west side or east side of Winnetka to go to the Army Corps website to find the permits; I have a little different perspective than that,” he said.

Later in the meeting, Cripe apologized to Dearborn for his strong response and said posting the permits to the Village’s website was a “reasonable approach.”

He reiterated his concern about property owners, such as Justin Ishbia, facing backlash from residents.

“Transparency is viewed as a universal good, and it is good if people exercise responsibility,” he said. “If (applicants) are getting harassed, doxed or harassed on social media, (the permits) need to come down immediately.”

With some tweaks to language, the amendments unanimously passed an initial vote and will be up for final approval at the council’s next board meeting.

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joe coughlin
Joe Coughlin

Joe Coughlin is a co-founder and the editor in chief of The Record. He leads investigative reporting and reports on anything else needed. Joe has been recognized for his investigative reporting and sports reporting, feature writing and photojournalism. Follow Joe on Twitter @joec2319

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