Budget passes through Park Board, but commissioner and residents criticize $8 million line item for beach improvements
The ongoing saga of Elder and Centennial beaches continues to dominate discussions for the Winnetka Park Board, even during regular agenda items.
During a special Park Board meeting on Thursday, March 9, where the only agenda item was discussion and approval of the fiscal year 2023 budget, four people spoke out against its approval and one commissioner voted no.
All who were against the nearly $24 million budget shared a concern: the allocation of about $8 million for the lakefront projects.
Resident Marc Hecht said the board should not allocate money toward a project that lacks details.
“It makes no sense, no sense at all for the park district to move full speed ahead with engineering plans when it has no idea just what beachfront it will actually have to work with at Elder and Centennial,” he said. “What the park district will have to work with will only be known when the lawsuit filed by Mr. (Robert) Schriesheim has been concluded.”
The lawsuit Hecht referred to was filed by Schriesheim in October 2022 and claims that the land exchange agreement between the park district and the Ishbia family, who own 261 Sheridan Road, is a violation of the Illinois Park District Code and the public trust doctrine.
The exchange agreement, which the park district entered into in October 2020, aims to create a contiguous lakefront by connecting Elder and Centennial beaches. But the agreement has generated controversy among the community.
Another resident, Judy Rowe, said the park district could use the money allocated for the lakefront to make other improvements, such as pickleball courts and child care options.
“I, as a taxpayer, really object to what you’re doing and say start over on the budget,” she said. “Slow it down.”
Commissioner Colleen Root, who has continually spoken out against the land exchange agreement, said the money allocated for the lakefront has caused her to have a “crisis of conscience.”
She echoed many of the concerns that were bought up by the residents.
“I think the budget, but for Fund 3700, is fantastic,” she said, referring to the money earmarked for the beach project. “If I could bifurcate that out, I would tell you I would vote and approve this budget.”
Board Vice President Christina Codo, who led the meeting in the absence of President Warren James, said that $8 million is a placeholder number and does not necessarily indicate money that will be spent.
Codo added that any projects that are more than $25,000 “will have to come back before us, will be separately considered, will be specifically considered with additional detail, which I think should give everyone in this room some comfort that we’re not willy-nilly writing the check today. We’re putting a placeholder in.”
She said the budget has included placeholders for large projects in the past.
Commissioners voted 5-1 to approve the budget, with Root being the lone dissenter.
Immediately following the vote, the board began its committee of the whole meeting, where discussion continued to center on the beaches.
Costa Kutulas, director of parks and maintenance, said the park district will hold an open house on Saturday, March 18, at The Skokie School, 520 Glendale Ave., with Elder Park as the primary focus.
At the February committee of the whole meeting, commissioners discussed improving the beaches separately and planning for that in case the land exchange agreement does not go through. The Park Board is focusing on Elder first because of maintenance issues that have kept the beach closed since 2020.
Kutulas said the design team is also working on plans for multiple different scenarios moving forward.
This includes “look(ing) at Elder independent of Centennial, Centennial independent of Elder, looking at those as a cohesive unit and then what would that look like as an all-in plan” if the property exchange with the Ishbias goes forward.
For those who can’t attend the open house, Kutulas said the presentation will be uploaded to the park district’s website for people to view.
Root asked if it’s possible to create a 3-D rendering of the designs, specifically so the public could see what a potential stone breakwater would look like if one were to be included in the plans.
“I think it would defray a lot of concerns if folks had that opportunity,” she said.
While Park District Executive Director John Peterson said it likely would not be possible to get a 3-D rendering done in time for the open house, he expressed support for exploring Root’s suggestion.
“I think that’d be interesting to look into that,” he said.
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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.