Winnetka, News

Despite threats of litigation, Winnetka trustees give bluff regulations final approval

Winnetka’s Village Council on Feb. 6 unanimously approved new regulations to protect the village’s shoreline by regulating how and what property owners can build on the steep slopes of bluffs on their land. 

Trustees’ decision came more than a year after they started talking about regulations, more than six months after they instituted a lakefront building moratorium in place until March 18, and after they and village staff made multiple revisions to the final language. Some revisions were added just before the final vote.

Trustees also made the decision despite threats of lawsuits from some lakefront homeowners, who say the regulations will cut their property values and encroach on their property rights by limiting how much of their table land and steep slope they can build on. 

“After your family and your faith, what’s more sacred than your home,” asked attorney Mark Karasik, who said he represents about 30 lakefront property owners. “If you pass this ordinance, we’ll see you in court.”

The village can handle the cost of lawsuits, Trustee Bob Dearborn said: “We’ll be sued. None of us are ignoring that fact. There will be litigation … I think we’re doing the right thing. I think this is a good ordinance.”

Dearborn joined Kim Handler, Bridget Orsic, Kirk Albinson and Rob Apatoff in approving the new ordinance. Trustee Tina Dalman was not at the meeting, and Village President Chris Rintz does not vote. 

Attorney Mark Karasik speaks to the council on Feb. 7 and threatens litigation related to the new regulations.

Although he doesn’t vote, Rintz spoke in favor of delaying a decision on the chance that the village could avoid litigation by talking with property owners represented by Kurasik and finding common ground. 

“I’ve never been sure that this ordinance is absolutely necessary, but as we’ve gone through this, I’ve seen people who have done things irresponsibly. Regrettably we always have to legislate to the lowest common denominator,” Rintz said. 

Both trustees and village staff said the ordinance, which amends Winnetka’s zoning code, allows property owners enough flexibility to build or rebuild structures on the steep slope sections of their bluffs as long as they meet the new regulations. It allows owners to appeal determinations by the village engineering director about their construction projects.

As an example of the many edits to the proposal, one change made during the meeting will allow backfilling of retaining walls if they are necessary to maintain the bluff’s stability, said Community Development Director David Schoon. Before then, the proposal had prevented that action. 

Lakefront residents who spoke at the meeting repeatedly said they, and not the village, can best protect bluff slopes that they own. They said Winnetka’s existing development permit process is robust and already ensures bluff protection when owners build new structures on their land or renovate existing ones. 

“Permitting is the way to go,” lakefront resident Bill Jackson said, warning that the new regulations would destroy land values. 

Other lakeshore residents echoed that and said ordinance language would ultimately limit what percentage of their land they can build on. Sheridan Road resident Michael Hara said a land use analyst he hired to review the proposal told him it would cut the amount of buildable land he has by 41 percent.

Trustees responded that the new regulations are less strict than bluff protections enacted by other North Shore communities, including Kenilworth, Glencoe and Highland Park. They have listened to residents on both sides of the issue, they said, and have changed the proposal several times since it was introduced last year, to give property owners more flexibility when they want to develop their steep slopes. 

Several speakers applauded the new ordinance. 

“Thank you for putting the interests of the village as a whole above a few individuals’ interests,” Lincoln Avenue resident Laurie Petersen said, adding “Winnetka’s lakefront is its treasure.”

“Just because you live on the lake does not give you carte blanche to do whatever you’d like to do,” Sheridan Road resident Katie Stevens said, telling the council, “I believe you are protecting the town.”

Winnetka Trustee Bridget Orsic discusses the council’s attempt to protect the shoreline.

Former village trustee King Poor said the ordinance struck a good balance between property rights and taking “much needed steps to protect the bluffs.”

The Village Council first began exploring shoreline regulations and protections at a study session on Jan. 10, 2023, and throughout last year, continued to hold discussions and votes, one of which established the moratorium on new lakefront construction

The catalyst for discussions was the Ishbia family’s plans to combine four properties along the lakefront. Neighbors shared concerns about the project and how it was impacting the bluff and future development.

Ultimately, the council must serve the entire village, not just lakefront residents, and that requires protecting the bluffs for current and future generations, council members said. 

“At the end of the day you can never please everyone. You can only do what you believe to be right,” Orsic said. “Protecting our bluffs is the right thing to do.”

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Kathy Routliffe

Kathy Routliffe reported in Chicago's near and North Shore suburbs (including Wilmette) for more than 35 years, covering municipal and education beats. Her work, including feature writing, has won local and national awards. She is a native of Nova Scotia, Canada.

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