Wilmette park, beach proposed
Beach goers make their along the path to the lakefront at Elmwood and Michigan. | Photos by Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
ON THE BEACH
WHERE: Elmwood Avenue right of way
WHAT: The future of beachfront access at Elmwood
WHO CARES: Neighbors, Wilmette trustees and residents
Updated: September 17, 2012 11:47AM
It could be a narrow but lovely park, open all year long so that the public could enjoy the scenery and access to Lake Michigan. Or that pleasant park could be partly restricted, perhaps with a keycard gate, or by seasonal closings. It might become a bird or animal sanctuary with little or no public access. Or it could simply be fenced off.
What Wilmette’s Elmwood Avenue beachfront right of way can’t be, residents told village trustees last week, is an uncontrolled invitation to get to the lake, party there or disregard common water safety practices.
More than two dozen people attended Tuesday’s village Municipal Services Committee meeting, which Trustee Cameron Krueger characterized as an effort by the Village Board to gather ideas about the right-of-way’s future.
Several attendees told committee chair Krueger that Wilmette should keep the right of way open to the public and develop it in as unobtrusive a fashion as possible.
But many others said Wilmette doesn’t need another public beach or warned that any development has to be accompanied by strict controls, to protect neighboring landowner’s rights.
Right now, those rights are being trampled by an increasing number of people using the right of way to get to the beach without paying Park District entrance fees at nearby Gillson or Langdon parks, they said. Visitors are having parties, drinking, trespassing on private property and leaving their belongings – including bicycles and kayaks chained to private property.
Krueger said he believes the neighborhood’s problems with traffic, parking and disorderly conduct are no worse than those faced by neighborhoods adjacent to other parks, despite the right-of-way’s higher profile in the wake of news stories about it.
“I’ve spoken with (Wilmette Police) Chief Brian King and I don’t believe that we have an untenable situation there,” he said.
But he insisted the village must balance the public’s right to open space with the rights of nearby homeowners.
Even residents who champion making the 80-foot-wide strip of village land into a park acknowledged the option had to honor the needs of area homeowners.
“We need to keep the immediate community in mind, while we look at potential options that serve all Wilmette residents, as well as non-Wilmette residents,” Elmwood Avenue resident Paul Mokdessi said.
Patrick Duffy, a village Zoning Board of Appeals member who helped spearhead the 2011 push to keep the land public, said the land should be used for passive recreation.
“We’re sensitive to homeowners’ needs, and we’re not trying to invite more people down here,” he said.
One plan supporters created would reintroduce native plant species and protect endangered native beach grasses. Access could be restricted, Duffy said, perhaps fencing or gating off Elmwood access so that people could only get to it from the nearby paid beaches.
Others at the meeting were less sympathetic. Sheridan Road resident Beth Beucher, a member of the Wilmette Park District’s Lakefront Commission, told trustees there is no need for more public beachfront access, not with Gillson and Langdon parks so close.
Nearby street-ending right of ways exist and are controlled by fences similar to that which once blocked beach access at Elmwood, making it far from being the rare public access point supporters have suggested it is, she said,
Beucher said the village could create an attractive overlook area at the top of the short bluff leading to the beach, but block the way down to the beach with an attractive fence.
She also asked if the village had fully explored all the legalities of vacating the right of way and selling portions to the neighbors. Municipal Services Committee member Alan Swanson agreed that the village should more fully research that.
Michigan Avenue resident Dan Ephraim said people who call the beachfront free are wrong: “We pay for it. The property taxpayers pay for it.”
Now that more people know about the beach, he said, “It’s like the floodgates have opened. People who come are coming to do things they’re not allowed to do at the other beach. They swim out too far, they drink on the beach … it’s not something you can write off as something (neighbors) can live with.”
Ephraim said he could see restricting access from the street to winter months, and blocking it much of the rest of the year.
Susan Noyes and Dennis Chookaszian, whose homes abut the north and south sides of the Elmwood Avenue right of way, echoed Ephraim. Noyes said she could support making the Elmwood right of way into a bird sanctuary, one option suggested by the Audobon Society.
Chookaszian repeated comments he made last year, saying that he and his family are still willing to work with the village to find some solution, ranging from vacation and sale to them all the way to making a completely controlled beach and park area.
“There are only three reasonable solutions,” he said, reblocking access from Elmwood, making it a controlled park, or vacating and selling the land.
“The unreasonable solution is to leave it as it is,” he said.