The Winnetka Park Board received an earful from residents on Thursday, April 27, during its regular meeting, which nearly spilled into Friday morning.
At issue during the five-and-a-half-hour meeting was renovation and cost options for Elder and Centennial beaches — information that led many of the night’s speakers to believe commissioners were set to approve $21 million in funding for the ongoing controversial project.
The source of much of that controversy stems from a long-pending land exchange agreement between the Winnetka Park District and the Orchard 2020 Trust, which represents the Ishbia family. Residents and even the Winnetka Village Council have spoken out against the ever-changing plans at public meetings for the past two years.
Comments on Thursday were at times filled with emotion and included demands for the commissioners to create a referendum on the project, accusations of a lack of transparency, and requests to defer board action.
After hearing all the public comments, park district staff and commissioners addressed some of the concerns, including the $21 million.
Costa Kutulas, director of parks and maintenance, said the $21 million is attached to the project only if the land exchange agreement goes through and the park district acquires the Ishbias’ land at 261 Sheridan Road.
The other phases of the project would focus on improving Elder and Centennial irrespective of the agreement, which had been discussed at the board’s February committee of the whole meeting.
“We’re not taking into consideration 261. We’re not taking into consideration any exchange of south property at Centennial,” Kutulas said of the Elder and Centennial improvements.
The estimated total of the beach work, in addition to storm sewer improvements, is $10.2 million, park documents show.
Additionally, Park Board President Warren James said approval of $21 million was not on the agenda.
“We are not looking to approve the expenditure of $21 million tonight,” he said. “That is not where we are in the process. This is the first step in understanding the cost implications of the project and its various phases and its phased implementation.”
Commissioners stated during the meeting that $10.2 million for the beach improvements would come from the park district’s capital projects fund and reserves.
While commissioners did not approve any spending, they did approve three motions to move the project forward:
- Program elements and design features for the parks and beaches at Elder and Centennial,
- A directive for staff to update the preliminary project schedule, cost estimates, refine the long-range capital plan budget, and “prepare a resolution summarizing the board’s proceedings and documenting its findings related to the Elder Centennial project for board consideration and action on May 25, 2023,” and
- instructions for staff and consultants to prepare permit drawings and applications for the regulatory agencies, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.
Much of the nearly one hour’s worth of discussion was spent on details of the beach renovations, which will include an off-leash dog park on the south end of Centennial Beach, retaining walls along the shoreline, an ADA-accessible pathway from the Centennial parking lot to the boardwalk, and the relocation and improvement of the Elder Lane storm sewer, including a new discharge point.
Several commissioners offered amendments to the changes, including one that removed nonmotorized boating, such as kayaking, as a recreation option for Elder.
Commissioner David Seaman said “it’s a pretty consistent theme” that the residents want to swim at Elder and not be bothered by recreation.
Commissioner Eric Lussen agreed.
“I just think we need to give people some beaches, where the kids can go out and adults can go out and swim,” he said.
The amendment was approved 5-2, with James and Commissioner Mickey Archambault in dissent.
Commissioners also approved an amendment to allow for swimming at Elder and the north side of Centennial.
But they rejected an amendment to issue a community survey to ask residents if they want the proposed improvements. That motion came from Commissioner Colleen Root, who consistently has been critical of several aspects of the plans, including the land exchange.
“We have heard repeatedly this evening … that we need to have some community survey, a minimum of a community survey,” Root said. “I don’t think it would take that long. Going to every household, asking if people want this.”
Her motion was rejected 5-2, with only Root and Commissioner Cynthia Rapp voting in favor. Root and Rapp also voted against a motion to prepare the preliminary project schedule, a measure that was ultimately approved.
In a rare moment of board harmony, however, commissioners unanimously approved a Root-motioned amendment that allows the Park Board to review permits before they are submitted to regulatory agencies.
Root’s justification was that two new commissioners will be joining the board in May and she said this would give them an opportunity to voice their thoughts on the project.
“At least this would give our two new members of the board an opportunity to become educated on what we’re doing here,” she said.
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