For most of the year, the Winnetka Park Board has been working on a plan to refurbish two beaches independent of a stuck-in-limbo property exchange agreement that could have unified the beachfront.
And at the board’s most recent session on Thursday, Oct. 19 commissioners took a step toward making the plan a reality; although, as has been the case with most Winnetka lakefront decisions, it didn’t come without disagreement from the public and among the commissioners.
A split Park Board (4-2) approved the final schematic designs for the Elder and Centennial beach improvements. Commissioners Colleen Root and Cynthia Rapp — who have consistently criticized many aspects of the projects, including the currently “dormant” property exchange agreement — cast the two dissenting votes, while Commissioner James Hemmings was absent.
In reading the motion to approve the designs, Park Board President Christina Codo said that they will be used to create a more detailed plan, which will then be included in permit applications that will need to be submitted to regulatory agencies — U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Village of Winnetka — for approval.
Before the permit application is submitted, though, it will need to return to the Park Board for a vote, a condition that Root requested in April when commissioners approved the preliminary schedule for the Elder and Centennial project.
That item will reportedly be on the agenda for the November Park Board meeting.
But both Root and Rapp shared concerns that the vote on the permit applications was not specifically mentioned in the motion to approve the final design plans, with Rapp suggesting that a sentence be added to the motion addressing that. She did not, however, formally move to amend the language.
Codo said she didn’t feel specific language was necessary, since it will be coming back to the board in November.
Additionally, Root attempted to table the motion for approval and requested that a vote instead be held on Nov. 2.
“We could transform (the committee of the whole meeting) into a special board meeting, so that we could have some really thoughtful consideration of this,” Root said.
Her motion failed 4-2, with only Rapp joining her in support.
Commissioner Warren James said he does not want any more delays on the project, and the community has said they want Elder Beach, which has been closed for the entire season, reopened.
“I don’t think there’s a substantive reason that we shouldn’t let staff proceed with the preparation, knowing we can look at those submittal documents in November,” said James, who also noted that there will be a 30-day period for public comment once the permit application process begins.
Prior to the commissioners’ vote Thursday, Costa Kutulas, director of parks and maintenance, went over the final proposed designs. Among the approved elements are three “rubble mound” breakwaters to help with shoreline protection — one at the northern end of Elder Beach, one at the southern end, and the third in the middle of Centennial Beach. The Centennial breakwater also includes an accessible viewing pier with bench seating.
Other elements include an ADA-accessible boardwalk with a concrete beach access ramp at both Elder and Centennial, and a dog beach at Centennial.
Additionally, Kutulas also presented six 3D renderings showing various perspectives from both Elder and Centennial beaches. He noted that the renderings, and the final designs, both include an aging pier at Elder Beach. That pier, and the stormwater pipe located within it, has been the subject of much debate between the Park Board and Village. The park district has expressed a desire to remove it, while the Village has not agreed.
“We have included the Park Board’s request to put in the pipes to be able to relocate the outfall,” Kutulas said, adding that the renderings and designs show the pier being renovated.
Kutulas also stressed that none of the plans include the property exchange agreement between Justin Ishbia and his family, who own 261 Sheridan Road, which separates the two beaches.
That agreement, which was announced in October 2020, has generated ongoing pushback from the community, to the point that in 2022 a shorthanded Park Board withdrew permit applications for designs that included the swapped land.
“We are not including any of that in the plan nor have we at any time,” Kutulas said. “The only time that we did was when that property would be acquired by the park district, and that was Phase 3 of the previous plan.”
The plan approved Thursday by commissioners is Phase 2.
Most of the 10 people who spoke during the public comment segment were against the project. Several, including Katie Stevens, a longtime Winnetka resident who has repeatedly been critical of the park district, demanded a referendum on Elder-Centennial.
Stevens was particularly critical of the breakwaters, which she said will divide the beach and obstruct views.
“Goodbye to our current gorgeous, uninterrupted views … from our beach to Gillson (Beach in Wilmette) to Waukegan,” she said.
The lone speaker in favor of the plan was former Park Commissioner David Seaman, who, along with Root and Rapp, voted to pull the initial permits. He said the current plan has “substantial modifications” from the one he opposed.
“The Winnetka Park Board has listened and learned,” he said. “The current plan design is nothing like the one I voted to withdraw the permit on. I’d like to call it a second cousin once removed.”
Just prior to the vote, Codo acknowledged the ongoing process and thanked those who have been involved.
“I want to thank everyone who has stayed (at the meeting), I want to thank everyone who has commented and helped to refine this,” she said. “It’s been a long 15 and a half months.”
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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.