Judge dismisses lawsuit filed over proposed land swap


A Cook County judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Winnetka resident alleging that a proposed land swap between the Winnetka Park District and billionaire Justin Ishbia violates the state’s park district code and its public trust doctrine.

The judge’s ruling, if it remains in force, would allow the long-sidetracked land trade to take place, although whether the swap ultimately happens remains in question.

Beginning in 2020, Ishbia, a private equity executive who lives in Lincoln Park and co-owns the Phoenix Suns, began buying lakefront properties on both sides of Centennial Park in Winnetka. One of the properties he purchased is 261 Sheridan Road, a site that separates two village lakefront parks, Elder Lane Park and Centennial Park. Ishbia proposed trading that house and its 71-foot-wide strip of land to the district in exchange for an equally sized piece of land at the south end of Centennial Park, in order to create a larger homesite for himself immediately south of the park.

The proposed land swap would allow the district to attain its longtime goal of uniting the two lakefront parks while giving Ishbia added land for a homesite. Ishbia is proceeding with construction on a $43 million mansion on a site south of Centennial Park.

The land swap has remained stalled for some time now, initially over Ishbia’s proposal to divide his property from the park with a louvered steel wall. And although Ishbia agreed to remove the proposed louvers, the land swap continued to be hung up, due to community opposition and objections by some members of Winnetka’s park district board.

The proposed land swap was further snarled in October 2022 when Winnetka resident Robert Schriesheim, Sears’ former chief financial officer, filed a lawsuit against the park district in Cook County Circuit Court, contending that under the state’s law governing park districts only the Illinois General Assembly has the ability to trade away parkland.

On Oct. 2, Cook County Circuit Judge Eve Reilly dismissed Schriesheim’s suit, concluding in her ruling that the park district acted in accordance with the state’s park district code and that the value of the land that Ishbia would give up is greater than the value of the land he would gain. She also disputed Schriesheim’s contention that the park district has no authority to dispose of public trust land.

In a statement, Winnetka Park District President Christina Codo said that she is “extremely pleased the court upheld the Park Board’s decision to enter into the exchange agreement and found the District complied with the law. The Park Board always acts with the best interest of the community in mind and will continue to be guided by that principle as plans to improve the lakeshore continue.”

Park District Executive Director John Peterson noted that Reilly’s ruling “restores the opportunity to combine Elder Lane Beach and Centennial Beach to create an eight-acre park and uninterrupted 1,000 feet of lakefront property dedicated to public use. This is one of the principal goals of the Winnetka Waterfront 2030 Lakefront Master Plan.”

Schriesheim’s attorney, Paul Gaynor, told the Tribune in a statement that Schriesheim plans to amend his lawsuit, “consistent with the court’s guidance, to demonstrate that the exchange is arbitrary and unreasonable.”

“The (judge’s) order allows us to pursue the crux of our case that the Winnetka Park District’s proposed exchange of Centennial Park beach is a violation of the public trust doctrine,” Gaynor said in the statement. “We will continue to protect the public’s right to use and enjoy public land.”

The case has its next status hearing on Nov. 1. In the meantime, the park board also has been dealing with discussions surrounding a proposed $3 million donation by Ishbia to the park district to help it rebuild the Elder Lane and Centennial beaches, including his interest in securing naming rights for Centennial’s dog beach.

Bob Goldsborough is a freelance reporter.


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