Winnetka, News

Lawsuit seeking to halt Winnetka Park District property exchange is dismissed — but plaintiff plans to refile

A county judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the Winnetka Park District and a controversial property exchange agreement along the lakefront.

The suit, filed by resident Rob Schriesheim in October 2022, alleged that the agreement between the park district and Justin Ishbia, who owns park-splitting 261 Sheridan Road, violated the Illinois Park District Code by swapping land of unequal value and the public trust doctrine by conveying land that belongs to the public.

The Circuit Court of Cook County determined, however, the district’s land appraisals that informed the exchange agreement were fair and timely and that Schriesheim’s team failed to prove the park district acted “arbitrarily or without reason” when it swapped public-trust land.

Park district officials celebrated the decision on Friday, Oct. 6.

“We are extremely pleased the court upheld the Park Board’s decision to enter into the exchange agreement and found the district complied with the law,” Park District President Christina Codo said in a statement. “The Park Board always acts with the best interest of the community in mind and will continue to be guided by that principle as plans to improve the lakeshore continue.”

According to the court’s opinion, during the proceedings, Schriesheim’s team did not dispute that the park district had lawful appraisals prior to entering into the exchange agreement. Instead, the plaintiff disagreed with the findings of those appraisals, which the court said is not evidence of a violation of the Illinois Park District Code.

To prove the land exchange violated the public trust doctrine, according to the opinion, Schriesheim’s team must prove that the subject land is for public use, the park district has taken action that puts the land’s intended use in jeopardy, and that action “is arbitrary and unreasonable.”

Judge Eve Reilly dismissed all three counts alleged in the lawsuit, but only two of them with prejudice. The other — Count II referencing the exchange of public-trust land — was dismissed without prejudice, leaving the door open for a refiling.

Attorney Paul Gaynor, of G&R Public Law and Strategies representing Schriesheim, said in a statement that Schriesheim’s focus in filing the suit was on the public trust doctrine and he plans to adjust and resubmit his complaint.

“We appreciate the court’s ruling. The order allows us to pursue the crux of our case that the Winnetka Park District’s proposed exchange of the Centennial Park beach is a violation of the public trust doctrine,” Gaynor said. “Mr. Schriesheim plans to amend his complaint, consistent with the court’s guidance, to demonstrate that the exchange is arbitrary and unreasonable. Mr. Schriesheim will continue to protect the public’s right to use and enjoy public land.”

A status hearing on the decision is set for Nov. 1 on Zoom.

The subject of the lawsuit is the exchange agreement that the park district entered into in October 2020, hoping to acquire land in between Elder and Centennial beaches and giving up a portion on the southern edge of Centennial. The exchange would enable a longtime goal of the district: a 1,000-foot, public and contiguous beachfront at the location.

For three years the agreement has drawn skepticism and outrage within the community, much of it linked to initial beach-improvement plans that impacted access to and views of the lakefront.

The agreement is stuck in limbo partly because of Schriesheim’s lawsuit; however, the suit’s dismissal will not necessarily enable the execution of the agreement. About a month ago, Ishbia publicly revealed he wanted to donate $3 million to the Winnetka Park District, an offer that keeps “dormant” the property exchange between the two parties.

The donation reportedly would enable more advanced improvements for Elder and Centennial beaches, including a fenced-in dog beach. The Park Board must first vote to accept the donation and is working through that process now.

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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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