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In Winnetka, a plan to swap lakefront tracts with a billionaire has sparked debate. ‘I think nature belongs to all of us’

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In a tony North Shore suburb, a showdown is taking place over a controversial plan to carve up a public beach and swap part of it with a billionaire private equity executive assembling a private estate.

Justin Ishbia has spent nearly $40 million acquiring four mansions along the Winnetka lakefront over the last several years. In 2020, he struck a deal to swap one of those mansions for a parcel controlled by the local park district, an exchange that would give him more land to create a dream estate for his family. The arrangement would also make it possible for the park district to improve the Winnetka lakefront, part of which is closed because of erosion, and open it up to crowds of beachgoers.

The deal seemed poised to go through until some residents realized last spring that as part of the deal, a slice of public beach would be turned over to Ishbia and placed behind a wall of stone and steel.

“When I heard they were going to give away part of the beach, that pissed me off,” said Allen Welch, a retired computer programmer and village resident of 37 years. “Once you lose public property, you’re not going to get it back.”

Residents and their dogs walk to the high water mark of Lake Michigan in front of a Justin Ishbia lakefront home as they cross from Centennial Beach to Elder Lane Park beach on Oct. 24, 2022, in Winnetka.

The ensuing controversy brought dueling petitions, heated public meetings and at least one lawsuit, eventually halting the land swap.

The dispute has evolved into more than the classic “not in my backyard” tale of neighborhood opposition. Communities around the Great Lakes are now watching how the escalating conflict plays out. Such battles could become more frequent as climate change sends water levels up and down, washing away beaches and threatening lakeside homes. Some private landowners and municipalities have responded by building stone breakwaters that extend out into the lake. But the breakwaters squeeze out cherished public spaces and, according to some experts, worsen beach erosion.

“The question is, who owns the lakefront and who has the right to traverse the lakefront, and how do you preserve it without filling it with concrete and stone?” said Colleen Root, a Winnetka Park District board member who criticizes the proposed land swap.

Experts on the Great Lakes say the hullabaloo isn’t surprising.

“The loss of lakefront access seems to be coming up more and more, and it often involves wealthy people who are in one way or another privatizing Lake Michigan, which is held in the public trust,” said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “Lake Michigan is for all of us, not just a few of us.”

Ishbia, the 45-year-old founder of Chicago-based Shore Capital Partners, said he’s not the bad guy, and completing the land swap will allow the park district to transform two quiet beaches into an unbroken, 1,000-foot wide stretch with a boardwalk, swimming and kayaking, all protected by huge stone breakwaters.

Currently a Chicago resident, he added that whatever happens, he will bring his wife and young children to the village and be an active community member.

“I’ve always been clear that I was going to live in Winnetka the rest of my life,” he said. “I plan to coach sports in the community and have a positive impact.”

Ishbia, who Forbes estimates is worth $2.3 billion, began buying lakefront homes in 2020. One of the properties he purchased is 261 Sheridan Road, a vacant home that sits between the beaches at Winnetka’s Elder Lane Park and Centennial Park.

“For more than 50 years, people in Winnetka have been asking, ‘can we unify the two parks?’ ” said Winnetka Park District Board President Warren James.

Uniting the beaches is central to the park district’s lakefront master plan, which was assembled based on responses to resident surveys.

“Elder Park and Centennial are beautiful and pastoral, but they’re also passive, and that part of our lakefront hasn’t really been touched since the 1950s,” James said. The Elder Lane Park Beach has been closed since 2019 due to unsafe conditions and erosion.

Ishbia, who paid $6.2 million for 261 Sheridan, was willing to trade the property, giving the park district the opportunity to connect the parks. In exchange, he would receive a section of Centennial and its beach, which is adjacent to the three other homes he purchased. He and the park district began negotiating the swap in 2020 with Ishbia, whose father founded Michigan-based United Wholesale Mortgage, insisting that the talks remain confidential.

At the time, Ishbia had not been identified as the buyer of the properties because he purchased them through trusts.

When the board unveiled the plan to connect and remake the beaches with an online video in October 2021, the response from village residents was quiet, and the board decided to submit its plan to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for approval.

But a set of public board meetings beginning in May changed everything. The presentations included detailed renderings of the new combined beach, and what jumped out to many were the steel louvers running along the tops of breakwaters, placing Ishbia’s slice of Centennial behind the wall.

“That really rubbed people the wrong way,” Winnetka Village President Chris Rintz said. “I think that turned the tide.”

“It’s the one spot you can sit on the bluff and see the lake, so it’s a very beautiful space,” said Root, who joined the park board in 2021 and had no role in the talks with Ishbia. She and others also feared the breakwaters and louvers would obstruct the sweeping views up and down the lakeshore.

Colleen Root walks her dog Penny in Centennial Park on Oct. 24, 2022, in Winnetka. She's a Winnetka Park District board member who criticizes the proposed land swap.

“This was no longer a simple land swap,” she said. “We called it ‘beach in a cage.’ We were going to be walled in and sealed off.”

A retired attorney who lost her Houston home and law practice in 2017 due to Hurricane Harvey, Root and her husband moved to the Chicago area to be closer to family and chose Winnetka because of the beaches.

“I have a basset hound that loves running on the beach, and Centennial is the dog beach,” she said. “Rain or shine my basset and I trot on over every day.”

“When this louver business came to light, in the space of just two weeks we had the signatures of over 1,700 residents who said, ‘don’t do this,’ ” Root said.

To be sure, not everyone opposed the land swap. “There is a lot of mixed opinion about what the park district is proposing to do,” Rintz said.

But the debate was fierce enough to pack public meetings.

“The idea of combining the parks makes sense, right?” said Willy Franzen, 38, who moved to the Centennial Park area this summer. “In a perfect world, I don’t think anyone would argue against that but when you’re giving up part of an already wonderful park to get that, that’s when it becomes a little more questionable.”

“When it’s a big deal, people in Winnetka will get involved and go to meeting after meeting if one of our boards is not listening,” said Debbie Ross, who has lived in the village for more than 40 years and is in favor of uninterrupted public access to the entire beach.

“One of the things that makes Winnetka attractive is its beaches, and I think nature belongs to all of us. You just can’t take the public’s property and just hand it over to a billionaire,” Ross said.

But James said there wasn’t a choice. The district can’t afford 261 Sheridan’s more than $6 million price tag, so if village residents wanted the parks united, it meant trading properties.

A few months after district officials signed what they thought was a clean swap agreement, the billionaire presented a list of new demands, James said.

Ishbia wanted a masonry wall extending 100 feet beyond the sea wall and elevated 17 feet above the normal water level, as well as restrictions on how the district could use Centennial Park, according to the minutes of closed district meetings. Those demands were not publicly known until July when the board released much of the material.

“We came back to the table and told Mr. Ishbia that the park district was not prepared to meet his demands,” James said.

An impasse stretched for months, and the district considered litigation to enforce the land swap agreement, he added. But that would have been costly and taken years. Ishbia dropped the land use restrictions and reached an agreement with the park district on the breakwater design, including the louvers.

“I want to be a member of this community, so I was willing to pull the louvers and keep going forward,” said Ishbia, who added that the whole controversy came as a surprise.

The louvers were meant to provide greater security and privacy for his family, he said.

“I was working in good faith with the park district,” Ishbia said. “Maybe it didn’t play out exactly as I planned. If I could do it again, I would say, ‘no louvers.’ ”

The combined community backlash led the board to narrowly vote on pulling the applications from consideration by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Conflicts between private landowners and the public over the Lake Michigan shoreline and how best to preserve it are likely to become more common, in part because of record-breaking high water levels in 2020.

Both private owners and municipalities have been scrambling to protect inundated beaches, eroded bluffs and threatened lakeside homes with new infrastructure, which can restrict access.

But experts said more natural beaches may be wise, at least over the long term. Breakwaters, boulders and other hard infrastructure can protect small areas, but worsen erosion elsewhere, a vicious cycle that then forces other communities to launch similar efforts, according to Alliance for the Great Lakes CEO Joel Brammeier.

“We’re not going to solve this problem by going out and building more hard structures,” he said.

A home owned by Justin Ishbia along the lakefront between Centennial Beach and Elder Lane Park Beach in Winnetka.
Willa, a 7-year-old Irish setter, and Geoff, an 11-year-old golden retriever, chase balls along Centennial Beach on Oct. 24, 2022, in Winnetka.

Some residents pressed the Winnetka Park District over the summer to ditch the whole idea of an amenity-rich beach complex and preserve Centennial and Elder Lane as quiet, contemplative beaches where visitors enjoy nature.

James said he understands the long-term threat associated with installing breakwaters. But he’s responsible for Winnetka’s lakeshore, and the recent historic lake levels wreaked havoc, especially at Lloyd Beach to the north, where the district completed new breakwaters in 2021.

“We had 100-year-old trees collapsing into the lake,” James said.

The Army Corps of Engineers may offer some guidance, Brammeier said. It launched this year an eight-state coastal resiliency study to identify the most vulnerable spots on the Great Lakes’ more than 5,000 miles of shoreline. Army Corps officials also said communities should avoid piecemeal measures and, where possible, use natural solutions such as preserving wetlands or creating offshore reefs.

“Rock and concrete are things that can be used in a pinch, but won’t create a truly resilient shoreline,” Brammeier said. “We’ve got to do better than hardening the shore several hundred feet at a time.”

Conflicts between private landowners and the public over who owns the shoreline are also likely to become more common as water levels rise, Brammeier said.

“That’s when you start to hear more questions about who owns the land,” he added.

One of the remaining sticking points in the Winnetka land swap is that Ishbia wants to be able to restrict access to his slice of Centennial Beach.

States mark the boundaries differently, according to Learner. Some around the Great Lakes, including Indiana and Michigan, have ruled the public has the right to stroll unimpeded along the sand, as long as individuals stay between a beach’s ordinary low-water and high-water marks.

But Illinois gives property owners like Ishbia more rights, Brammeier said. In general, people can stroll along the lakeshore, only if they keep their feet wet.

Although the Winnetka Park District is still willing to swap properties with Ishbia, the two sides remain at an impasse. The district decided this fall to instead go ahead with the northern Elder Lane half of the project and hopefully tackle the Centennial portion another day. They will hold public workshops on the Elder plan early next year.

“Let’s move forward and not throw away the good work that’s been done,” James said.

A Sheridan Road home owned by Chicago billionaire Justin Ishbia, in Winnetka.

The board also voted to set a Jan. 20 deadline to finalize the land swap contract with Ishbia. Three commissioners voted against doing so, because of a lawsuit filed by 30-year Winnetka resident Rob Schriesheim, former chief financial officer of Sears Holdings Corp., who alleges the deal violates the public trust and should be stopped.

The board has since tabled a vote on terminating the land swap agreement.

Ishbia also dug in his heels. He said he’s still open to swap but refuses to sign over the deed to 261 Sheridan until all the lakefront plans are finalized and approved by the state, the Army Corps and the village.

“If I don’t figure this out, I’m keeping 261 in perpetuity,” he said, perhaps letting family members use it as a seasonal home. “It’s not going to go to waste.”

And like the park district, he’s going forward with his own plans. In July, Ishbia bought 195 Sheridan Road, just south of his other properties, for $16 million, creating even more room for a vast waterfront estate.

“I’m going to go forward,” he said, “and build my house without them.”

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