Winnetka, News

Winnetka Park Board accepts Ishbia’s $3 million donation via 4-3 decision

Winnetka Park District commissioners used their first meeting of 2024 to ship-to-shore one of the most contentious issues of the last year.

The split Park Board approved by a narrow 4-3 vote during its Thursday, Jan. 18 meeting a long-disputed $3 million donation agreement between the Winnetka Park District and the Ishbia Family Foundation. 

Casting votes of support were Park Board President Christina Codo, Vice President Eric Lussen, and commissioners Warren James and Jeff Tyson. Commissioners James Hemmings, Cynthia Rapp and Colleen Root voted against the agreement. 

“My family and I are honored to help the Winnetka Park District bring to life its vision of stabilizing and enhancing the Elder and Centennial parks and beaches,” Justin Ishbia told The Record in an emailed statement after the meeting. 

“A considerable amount of time and effort has gone into creating the plans for a beautiful lakefront that people of all ages and abilities can access and bring their dogs to. We are pleased that the Winnetka Park District will be able to start the lakefront improvements in the foreseeable future so that it will soon be available for the community to enjoy.”

As previously reported by The Record, Ishbia, who owns land south of Centennial Park Beach and in between Centennial and Elder Park beaches, announced his contribution offer in early September as means to help fund the Winnetka Park District’s renovation plans for Elder and Centennial beaches.

In the months since the offer, representatives from the Ishbia Family Foundation and the Winnetka Park District have at length discussed and debated conditions attached to the donation. 

Park commissioners reviewed the initial proposed agreement from the foundation in late November during a four-hour special meeting. Commissioners then again considered an agreement with updated provisions in mid-December, as well as a competing donation offer, before tabling the matter and opting to take no formal vote until their first meeting of 2024. 

The approved agreement 

Justin Ishbia, a Winnetka property owner and beach neighbor whose foundation is donating the $3 million to the park district. | Photo Submitted

Park Board attorney Adam Simon guided commissioners through updates to the agreement since the board’s last session.

Simon remarked that one notable change is an addition to what the agreement classifies as the project elements.

Previously, the offer referenced funding an ADA-accessible pathway from the Centennial parking lot to the beach, an off-leash, fenced dog park on the southernmost portion of Centennial Beach and shoreline protection measures at Centennial. The updated proposal included a pedestrian bypass around the dog beach to permit transit north and south. 

Additionally, the approved agreement also offered some changes on the previously contentious provision of an arbiter.

The first proposal from the Ishbia Family Foundation named Gregg Seiler, of Seiler Consulting, as the arbiter. Some board members took issue with both the inclusion of an arbiter in general and the naming of Seiler in the role. 

The updated agreement that commissioners reviewed in December proposed John Peterson, retiring executive director of the Winnetka Park District as the arbiter. 

Although the approved agreement still names Peterson as the arbiter, it removed the clause that allowed him to name his successor in the arbiter role. Under the new proposal, there would be no successor to Peterson and any disputes between the park district and the foundation would now be referred to an independent arbitration system. 

There is also a newly added provision in the agreement that states if there is a disagreement between the two parties, and it results in litigation, the party that prevails will be reimbursed all attorney fees, according to Simon. 

“That is designed to make sure that the parties act judicially and not frivolously,” he said. “You have to make sure that if you proceed to bring a dispute, that you’re confident that you have a good faith chance to win because it you file a frivolous claim and lose, you’re not only going to pay your own fees, you’re going to pay your opponent’s fees as well.” 

The approved agreement still included the 50-year term length provision as well as a declaration of restrictive covenant, two points that had made commissioners hesitate.  

Prior to the board’s vote, Root detailed her opposition to some conditions of the agreement, notably the restrictive covenant, which she reiterated as a considerable cause of concern. 

“I want to take their money,” Root said. “I want to improve the park. I want ADA as a commissioner. I want to see this happen. The concern I have is that we are giving authority to a private entity on land that belongs to everybody; that is public land.” 

Simon disagreed with the sentiment, saying that, in his legal opinion, the park district is not “conveying any interest in land.” 

“The park district came to a decision independently about the plans that were approved on October 19 and the agreement essentially asks the park district to promise to maintain the improvements that it has decided to build,” Simon said. 

“We are promising to maintain the improvements that the Park Board has elected to build,” he later added. 

Divided park board approves agreement

The board’s final vote on the donation agreement showcased the similar theme of a divided group of commissioners who have been largely split on this matter, and others related to the beachfront, since it was first introduced. 

But four commissioners found that the positive elements of the deal ultimately outweighed the heavily discussed undesirable conditions. 

Lussen noted that the agreement “is not perfect,” but said that it will provide the “Winnetka Park District with an opportunity to enhance our beach project.” 

A view from the southern border of Centennial, showing the fenced dog beach (left) and more in the proposed changes to the Winnetka beachfront.

He later called the district’s plans for Elder and Centennial beaches “a once-in-a-generation project.”

“We have the opportunity to move Winnetka forward today and tonight is the opportunity,” Lussen said. “We should, and I encourage us to, leave a positive legacy and do not let perfect become the enemy of good.” 

James shared similar sentiments, also opening his remarks by noting that the agreement has its flaws. But the former board president, who has consistently supported the district’s collaborations with Ishbia, said his support was rooted in “making prudent decisions and moving forward for the best interests of the community.”

“This is the right project and this is the right time,” James said. “The donation is not perfect but it gives us the ability to move forward and leave something positive. It’s not about us. It’s about our kids, it’s about our grandkids. It’s about healing and it’s about bridging some pretty acrimonious times and moving forward.” 

Tyson said that he’s grown to support the agreement while expressing his belief that it’s “come along” since the board first considered it. He added that he believes the foundation has heard the board’s concerns and worked to relent on some of the contention. 

Dissenting commissioners, however, expressed significant concerns.

While noting that he “completely understands the reasoning and the rationale for some of the provisions in the agreement” Hemmings said that the new proposal “has not ameliorated the issues” he has. 

Hemmings reiterated his previously stated hesitations regarding the role of the arbiter and the belief that it is not necessary for that position to remain in place for the 50-year term of the agreement. 

He also said he has “an issue fundamentally with a park district board accepting, in a monetary donation, a term that has a liquidated damages provision and a restrictive covenant.” 

Echoing her comments that were made earlier in the meeting, Root said the agreement is “tying the hands of future boards” while again expressing that she believes it “creates the opportunity for public land to be under the control of a private entity.”

Rapp argued that she believes it would be “very premature” moving ahead with the agreement given that the park district still has to go through multiple levels of public agency review. 

The other donation offer

The board also discussed the surprising, anonymous $3-million donation offer it received during its December meeting. 

As previously reported by The Record, Elizabeth O’Brien, an attorney with the firm Levenfeld Pearlstein, announced an offer at the meeting from a client that she described as an “unrestricted and anonymous gift of $3 million to the Winnetka Park District.”

During the Dec. 14 meeting, the board appointed Hemmings and Codo to further explore negotiation of the offer. Hemmings provided an update at the meeting, saying the sides have had “a very nice and productive discussion thus far.” 

According to Hemmings, two “conceptually hashed out conditions” come with the offer. The first is that the park district does not transfer any part of Centennial or Elder parks, a presumed reference to the heated property exchange agreement between the park district and Ishbia. The second is that the park district “does not enter into an agreement, easement or similar restriction with a private party that restricts the design, modification or operation of the park,” according to an email published in the agenda materials detailing the offer. 

Codo said that the district is hopeful it can arrange a meeting with the donor to walk through a presentation that will detail the project elements. This would likely be the next point of conversation between the two parties, she noted. 

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martin carlino
Martin Carlino

Martin Carlino is a co-founder and the senior editor who assigns and edits The Record stories, while also bylining articles every week. Martin is an experienced and award-winning education reporter who was the editor of The Northbrook Tower.

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