Wilmette, News

Two Sides of the Fence: Residents scold park district over beach fencing, while officials cite safety issues

Public criticism from Wilmette residents over the park district’s changes to Gillson’s South Beach continues to swim in front of park board commissioners. 

More than 20 residents addressed commissioners Monday, May 20, during a heated Committee of the Whole Park Board meeting attended by more than 50 locals to express a range of objections to the district’s decision to transition South Beach to a fee-based beach with a designated swim area. 

Wilmette Park District officials first announced their intentions for the popular beach during a March 18 meeting, as first reported by The Record

Per a series of communications from the park district, the shift in operations will also feature increased safety measures, such as lifeguards and security personnel. Current plans include a daily entry fee to the beach of $5 for residents and $10 for nonresidents. 

Park officials have continually cited years of ongoing and growing safety concerns, for both guests of the beach and park staffers, as the primary reasoning for the shift. 

Beachgoers complain the fence restricts access to views of the lakefront.

As part of the new procedures, the district also recently installed a slatted dune fence that surrounds South Beach. Although locals highlighted concerns with several parts of the park’s plans for South Beach, the recently erected fence proved to be a key point of contention for many speakers. 

Public commenters criticized how the fence restricts access to the beach for mobility impaired patrons, limits attendance from out-of-town visitors, impacts safe passageways for wildlife, and restricts lakefront views from several locations along the beach.  

Wilmette resident Carole Kagan said she did not believe the fencing “is good for the community.” 

“In short, it takes away considerable access to the beach, without sufficient input from the residents,” she said. 

“Saying the fence will be reevaluated next year does not solve the problem of the park district taking away beach access this year for reasons that are inconsistent and not fully transparent,” she later added. “It comes on the heels of restricting car access to the beach after 8 p.m. and restricting all access to the beach after 9 p.m. … The beach is one of Wilmette’s greatest resources. Eliminating access in this way is unacceptable.” 

Jeff Axelrod, of Wilmette, urged the board to “remove the newly constructed fence along the beach and restore the lakefront to its original and welcoming state.” 

“Gillson Park is a public space and natural resource that belongs to everyone, not just Wilmette residents,” said Axelrod, who also presented the board with a petition of approximately 500 signatures opposing the fencing. 

“It’s not a private club, it’s a gift that we were entrusted to manage. The idea of charging for admission to the lake contradicts this fundamental principle of public access.”  

Several residents noted during their comments that they felt caught off-guard by the installation of the fencing, saying they believe the park’s process lacked transparency and opportunities for resident feedback. 

“It’s surprising that the park district, which routinely surveys residents about the most mundane project details, chose not to seek public input on such a significant change,” Axelrod said. 

Wilmette’s Cecily Durbin told the board that the new procedures at South Beach take “away the beauty of inclusivity.” 

“For me, this is just seeing all the people who are going to lose out with this fence and that really breaks my heart,” she said, later adding that she thought it “was beautiful that everybody could be here.” 

Other commenters also expressed their disapproval of the fence’s location, with one resident calling it “absolutely horrible.” 

“There are behaviors down (at South Beach) that are outside of our rules. … The treatment of our staff is unacceptable. … No one wants to put a fence on a beach. “We just are trying to figure out a solution.”
Steve Wilson, executive director of the Wilmette Park District

In an atypical procedure for board meetings, Park District Executive Director Steve Wilson offered the community answers to many of the resident questions raised during the near-hour-long public comment portion of the meeting. 

Wilson began his remarks by noting that “there are behaviors down (at South Beach) that are outside of our rules” while adding that “the treatment of our staff is unacceptable.” 

“No one wants to put a fence on a beach,” Wilson said. “We just are trying to figure out a solution and I say the word ‘trying’ because we don’t pretend to have a perfect solution in place at the moment. That’s why all of your feedback is very important to us.” 

Wilson added that the park district has “made a couple of minor changes already” and is “considering even more changes, more so than even minor.” He noted that officials would not provide final decisions on those changes at the May 20 meeting. 

Wilson summarized the district’s reasoning for the new procedures at South Beach as an attempt “to address the abusive behavior” toward fellow patrons and park staff as well as “the risky behaviors” that occur at the beach. 

Park officials also said at the meeting that staff retention is strong for the coming season but that some staff members specifically stated they will not work on South Beach. 

As Wilson attempted to offer answers to the community, audience members frequently interrupted with follow-up questions that pressed the park for more specific details. Several residents asked Wilson to expand on the safety problems the park has cited. 

According to Wilson, the park district has approximately 280 annual contacts with the police department at Gillson Beach. That number includes all incidents within Gillson proper, not just related to South Beach. It also does not include situations that staff are already engaging in, Wilson said. 

Regarding the location of the fence, Wilson said park officials are “looking at certain ways to reconfigure the fence” following residents’ feedback on restricting views. 

“We’re not trying to take anyone’s access away, we’re not trying to take anyone’s view away, while we acknowledge the placement of the fence has certainly done that from certain vantage points, including some of the benches,” he said. 

As audience members continued to remark from their seats after the closure of public comment, commissioners ultimately voted to take a recess at approximately the 90-minute mark of the meeting. 

Commissioners returned from the recess with a brief discussion that restated the park’s goals for implementing the new procedures. 

“Right now, the goal is to try and change the behavior and this is what we have as the option,” Commissioner Patrick Duffy said. 

“I think, functionally, this is a decent option for where we are right now and we’re going to try it this year and see how it goes,” he later added. 

Commissioner Julia Goebel called the changes at South Beach an “evolving operation” while noting that the board is glad to hear feedback from the public. 

“Public comment is a process that makes outcomes better,” she said. “This is my sixth year on the board and we have seen time and time again that public comment raises ideas and feedback that we might have otherwise not had.” 

The park board will next meet at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, June 10, at Wilmette Village Hall.

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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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