Aldermen have put on hold until July 22 consideration of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City of Evanston and Northwestern University about the operation and maintenance of what the MOU called “the beach at the end of Lincoln Street” but what the City has for several years called “Lincoln Street Beach.” 

In the meantime, Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup will revise the MOU to address some concerns voiced by aldermen at the July 8 City Council meeting. 

As proposed, the MOU delegated to the City of Evanston the responsibility of monitoring the water quality daily and combing the beach weekly. The University would supply a lifeguard and someone to monitor the entrance.

The MOU allowed Northwestern to dictate the times during the “beach season” the beach would be open for use by those who had a beach token or who had paid the daily fee; the terms of parking – which the University could withdraw with sufficient notice; and the days the beach would be open, which the University could reduce. Northwestern would also have been able to change the admission fee.

During public comment, Corinne Clarkson read a letter from Barbara Janes that said she was “absolutely opposed to this MOU until there is a statement from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources” that the City has control of the beach.

Mary Rosinski said she objected to the 10-year period of the MOU, even though there is a cancellation clause. “I’d like it to be revisited and have public input.”

By email in response to questions from the RoundTable on July 9, Jeff Smith, local attorney and former General Counsel for the Illinois Department of Natural Resource wrote, “Under common law as well as under state law, the state owns the bed of the lake and the shore in trust for the people. Under §§5, 7, and 24 of the Rivers, Lakes & Streams Act, IDNR (which includes the former Department of Conservation and the former waterways division of IDOT) has supervisory jurisdiction over Lake Michigan (like all State waters), and has a strict duty to prevent them from being encroached upon by private interests. 

“… Northwestern University doesn’t become the owner of land/sand that accreted as a result of an artificial structure (the lakefill). IDNR doesn’t have to ‘declare’ that the beach is public, because that should be obvious.

“My understanding is that IDNR has consistently asserted state jurisdiction over the Lincoln Street beach. … IDNR administers very few of the beaches along the Lake and for the most part has allowed local governments (cities, villages, counties, and park districts) to administer such beaches. For most if not all of those public beaches, there should be intergovernmental agreements or other paperwork in place. So it is possible that they are putting an intergovernmental agreement in place.”

Rachel Torbert, Deputy Director and Assistant Chief of Staff for Communications at IDNR, confirmed Mr. Smith’s interpretation.  She told the RoundTable, “IDNR is working with the City of Evanston to provide an intergovernmental agreement to allow Evanston to use the beach. … Our position is that the State owns the beach, and, as such, IDNR is working on a management plan.” She added, “The City did reach out to us early this month, and we will provide that as soon as it is ready.”

Asked by the RoundTable why she did not mention at the July 8 meeting that the City has been working with IDNR on an intergovernmental agreement, Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup responded by email, “I am not working on this document.  I have never spoken or communicated with IDNR about this matter.”

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, who is on vacation, told the RoundTable via email that he and Mayor Stephen Hagerty “met with the IDNR Director in Springfield on May 1 and she confirmed this [the assertion of State ownership of the beach].  IDNR has been working on a draft IGA for City ever since. … Once we receive draft IGA from IDNR, I think we will all have better sense of next steps.”

The question of ownership of the beach threaded its way through much of the Council’s deliberation.

Alderman Don Wilson, 4th Ward, noted “the State has called the ownership of the beach into question,” and he made a motion to limit the MOU to run to Labor Day 2020.  Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, said, “My understanding is that we have ownership of Lincoln Street Beach but that has not been communicated to us directly.”

She asked Corporation Counsel Michelle Masoncup when the City might hear from the Department of Natural Resources.

“I would expect in a couple of months,” Ms. Masoncup said.

Ald. Fiske said, “I would prefer not to extend this for two years. I would prefer it run to April. I don’t think our staff did a very good job of keeping us informed. … I’m not sure this is a real benefit to the City of Evanston.” She said she did not see a cost comparison of how much the City and Northwestern would each spend on maintaining the beach. She also objected to the fact that the beach, which the City has called Lincoln Street Beach for the past few years, was termed in the MOU “the beach at the end of Lincoln Street.”

Ald. Wilson said the City would monitor the water quality for this beach and comb it weekly, as it does for every beach in Evanston. He said that, though he objected to the length even with a generous cancellation clause, he did not see any onerous terms in the MOU.

Alderman Eleanor Revelle, 7th Ward, said she found the MOU “very, very disappointing. … “All of our other beaches are available every day, all year round; all the hours of access are 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. year-round.” She also said she felt even two years was too long for the MOU.

Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, said she agreed with Ald. Revelle.

Mayor Stephen Hagerty said, “Right now that beach is accessible and usable by residents of Evanston, so if we vote down this MOU, does that take the beach offline?”

Ms. Masoncup said, “Because the ownership of the beach is in dispute, someone could block access to the beach, but I don’t know who.”

“Doing nothing – to me, that doesn’t make sense,” said Ald. Wilson. “If I were Northwestern’s lawyer, I would say, ‘Lock the gate. This is a beach, and if the City’s not going to take it responsibly …’”

Ald. Fiske said, “This agreement is not for the citizens of Evanston.”

Ald. Revelle asked, “Would it solve things if we held this till our next meeting and came back with a simpler MOU?” She made a motion to that effect. She said she would like the terms of a new MOU to include provisions that the beach hours for Lincoln Street Beach be the same as the hours for all the other Evanston beaches, that Northwestern would not be able to increase the admission fee and that Northwestern would post on its website notifications of when it will close the beach.

Ald. Revelle added she had heard there may be endangered species in the dune grass at Lincoln Street Beach and asked that that area be fenced off.

Ms. Masoncup said she did not believe a provision to fence off the dunes area would be feasible for the new MOU but thought the other provisions would work.

The Council is scheduled to consider a new MOU at its July 22 meeting.  However, in light of IDNR’s claim of ownership of the beach by the State and the forthcoming intergovernmental agreement between IDNR and the City of Evanston, there may be further delays to an MOU between Northwestern and the City.

Mary Gavin is the founder of the Evanston RoundTable. After 23 years as its publisher and manager, she helped transition the RoundTable to nonprofit status in 2021. She continues to write, edit, mentor...