Winnetka, News

Winnetka property owners follow through with lawsuit against Village over bluff regulations

Attorney Mark Karasik, 90 days later, stayed true to his word.

Karasik, of law firm Baker and McKenzie, is representing a group of lakefront property owners in a lawsuit against the Village of Winnetka and its new beachfront-development regulations, which the Village Council passed on Feb. 6.

During that meeting, Karasik told Winnetka officials “If you pass this ordinance, we’ll see you in court.”

The lawsuit calls Winnetka’s new ordinance an “attack” on property rights and alleges it “deprives Plaintiffs and other lakefront property owners in Winnetka of the value, use, and enjoyment of their bluffs and the lakefront properties for which they paid substantial sums.” Additionally, the Village has cost the property owners tens of millions of dollars — “beyond Winnetka’s ability to pay” — in property values, the suit claims.

Karasik and company are asking the court to force a reversal of the ordinance or grant the suing property owners appropriate compensation.

When Winnetka trustees passed the measure, they acknowledged the likelihood of litigation. Trustee Bob Dearborn said, “We’ll be sued. None of us are ignoring that fact.”

But they also expressed belief they were “doing the right thing,” Dearborn said at the time, with Trustee Bridget Orsic saying:

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

How we got here

The Village Council first began exploring additional 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 a moratorium on new lakefront construction as they worked through the process.

The catalyst for the discussions was the Ishbia family’s plans to combine four properties along the lakefront to build an enormous home plus amenities. Lakefront neighbors shared concerns about the project and how it was impacting the bluff and future development.

Trustees and village staff spent months developing the language for an ordinance that could protect the town’s bluffs. The Village created steep slope regulations that were modeled after the Village of Glencoe’s code, which creates zones for each lot that are based on each individual slope, and not a required measurement. Kenilworth and Highland Park also maintain bluff regulations.

The ordinance, which amends Winnetka’s zoning code, allows property owners flexibility to build or rebuild structures on the steep slope sections of their bluffs as long as they meet the new regulations, which include a demarcation line of the ordinary high-water benchmark as defined by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That is currently 581.5 feet.

Retaining wells, staircases, lifts and fences are allowable structures in steep-slope zones. Boathouses are also allowed at a maximum of 15 feet tall and 860 square feet.

Additionally, rebuilding and remodeling of existing structures would be allowed. For already built structures that do not conform with the Village Code, the structure can be rebuilt on the existing foundation as long as it “does not extend beyond the existing foundation and the foundation will support what is rebuilt without material adverse impact on the steep slope.”

The ordinance allows property owners to appeal village determinations about their construction projects.

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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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