Following a local property owner’s offer to provide a donation to the Winnetka Park District to complete long-planned beach work, park commissioners discussed next steps on whether to accept the donation.
Last month, Justin Ishbia offered to donate $3 million to support renovation efforts at Elder and Centennial beaches, which border his properties along the lakefront.
Ishbia and his family own 261 Sheridan Road, which separates the two beaches, and which has been at the center of a pending property exchange agreement between Ishbia and the Winnetka Park District. He also owns a consolidation of four parcels to the south of Centennial Park.
At the Winnetka Park Board’s Committee of the Whole meeting on Thursday, Oct. 5, Park Board President Christina Codo briefly talked about the donation offer and how the process will move forward.
The first step, she said, will be a meeting between Park Board representatives and Ishbia to formally hear his proposed donation. Following that meeting, which is not yet scheduled, Codo said the Park Board will discuss Ishbia’s proposal.
“This is a public board matter and it will be discussed in public with the entire board,” Codo said.
The third step will be to vote on the donation offer.
Codo said that a timeline for when a vote will happen is not yet clear and it depends on when that first meeting takes place. But she also added that there is not pressure on commissioners to set up a meeting as soon as possible.
“Obviously, it’s interesting to us, but it is not urgent for us, as we have a budget process and we have a permitting process that is will be the higher priorities,” she said; “however, we will obviously seek the first meeting available and report back promptly.”
Commissioner Colleen Root, who has been a vocal critic of the land exchange agreement and the donation, asked Codo about getting a legal opinion from the board attorney, Adam Simon, and if an agenda could prepared prior to any meeting with Ishbia.
Codo said that a decision on a legal opinion would not happen until after the initial meeting, and while she said an agenda isn’t necessary, she would consider one.
“I feel like we don’t yet have a meeting date and our question is more seeking to find out what those conditions, if any, might be,” Codo said. “So, that’s really the agenda.”
Commissioner Warren James suggested that Simon sit down with Ishbia’s attorneys to draft a donation proposal. He specifically cited Ishbia’s interest in naming rights to the proposed fenced dog beach that would border Ishbia’s property. Simon revealed Ishbia’s interest in naming rights at the park board’s Sept. 21 regular meeting.
“I think it would be very helpful if our two counsels were to communicate with one another and come together with a draft that they have prepared for us to look at,” James said. “I don’t think there’s any hope that seven people trying to openly negotiate a document that is, in essence, a donation, would come to fruition.”
During James’ comments, and exemplifying the polarizing nature of the offer, someone from the audience shouted, “Just don’t accept his donation.” The Park Board did not respond to the comment.
Earlier in the meeting during public comment, two people spoke up against the donation, including former Park Commissioner Susie Schreiber.
She said previous boards have sometimes spent years discussing naming of parks, and even longtime residents have had their naming proposals denied.
“It’s a very sensitive issue,” she said.
Root ended the discussion by requesting, if the board agrees to naming rights, that they also request a “permanent access easement” across 261 Sheridan Road “because our original desire was to have a united beach. And at least having that easement across would be quite a gift to the community.”
Stormwater pipe snarling beach improvement plans
Commissioners also continued their discussion on what the designs for the Elder and Centennial beach project should look like.
Much of their discussion Thursday centered on the potential replacement and relocation of a Village of Winnetka-owned stormwater pipe at Elder Beach.
Discussions on the pipe have, at times, become heated, with the park district insisting the pipe needs to be replaced and the Village disagreeing.
James argued that the park district should include a plan to relocate the pipe, which is located within a 75-year-old pier.
“Maintaining that pier is inconsistent with the original vision for Elder Park and Beach, and it also leaves in place an antiquated storm sewer system, including the 100-year-old storm sewer pipe that runs from Sheridan Road out to the bluff beyond very large existing trees,” he said.
He also encouraged more conversations between the park district and the Village in the hopes of coming to an agreement.
A majority of the commissioners also echoed support for including the storm pipe relocation in their plans.
Codo said she would reach out to the Village for further discussions, but said that “they were pretty firm in what their process was.”
Costa Kutulas, director of parks and maintenance, also believed that including the stormwater pipe relocation could cause a delay with permit applications to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
“They would not allow for that improvement to take place knowing that there is an existing outfall still functioning,” he said, later adding that it could delay the permitting process by 60 to 90 days.
James disagreed with Kutlas’ assessment and said they should include the pipe replacement in their application.
“I also know that, in my mind…the storm sewer should be relocated,” he said. “I am fully supportive moving forward with that.”
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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.