Lincoln Street Beach, the State-owned "People's Beach," but not the "Northwestern Beach"RoundTable photo

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Lincoln Street beach will continue operating in the same manner as other Evanston beaches through Labor Day, with City officials holding off on an agreement with Northwestern University that would have allowed the university to dictate some terms of its use.

At the City Council’s Administration and Public Works Committee meeting July 22, City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz and Corporation Council Michelle Masoncup recommended the City hold off on the memorandum of understanding.

Figuring in their decision was a “meaningful conversation” that day with Illinois Department of Natural Resources representatives, which provided a much clearer understanding of the State’s view of the beach whose ownership was in dispute,  Mr. Bobkiewicz told the Committee.

“First and foremost they said the beach belongs to the State of Illinois, and that as far as they are concerned that had never been an issue, “ Mr. Bobkiewicz said, “and if there is some miscommunication, some misunderstanding with the university they intend to work with us to convey to the university that it is a State beach.”

“I think it has been discussed that the beach was created through changes in the lake,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz. “The State claims lake bottom — and the State believes that that beach was a prior lake bottom and consequently belongs to the citizens of the State of Illinois.”

What the State has proposed, he said, “is an intergovernmental agreement between the City of Evanston and the State of Illinois for the operation of the beach. Clearly, Northwestern would need to be a party to the agreement, involved in future discussions with IDNR on the issue, said Mr. Bobkiewicz.

He said IDNR had also identified some plant species they are concerned about that are adjacent to the beach, which language in the intergovernmental agreement would address.

Mr. Bobkiewicz told Committee members he expected to receive a draft of the intergovernmental agreement from the State in the next several days. “And once we receive it we’ll be able to discuss it.”

The latest development came only a few weeks after aldermen counter-proposed terms sought by Northwestern for the beach, which lies just off the university at the east end of Lincoln Street.

Council members proposed the agreement should run through the current beach season instead of the 10-year term sought by Northwestern in its proposal.

The University was also seeking to specify the times the beach would be open for use, the terms of parking and the days the beach would be open, the RoundTable previously reported.

The two sides had been in discussions since last year about the beach, which was created during the 1960s as part of the University’s expansion on the north end of its landfill. 

The university had maintained that as owner of the rights to the property, the beach belonged to them. Evanston officials meanwhile took up resident claims that the beach, as part of an artificial landfill extended into the lake, belonged to the public.

Mr. Bobkiewicz indicated that discussions with Northwestern on the beach would be renewed once the IDNR document is shared by the various parties.

“In the meantime, the beach will continue to operate as it has operated this summer,” he told Committee members, “at least through Labor Day when all City beaches’ access to the water closes.”

The City of Evanston has finally received official notice from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources that IDNR claims Lincoln Street Beach for the people of Illinois.

Given that stance by the State, Mr. Bobkiewicz recommended that Council not sign a memorandum of understanding with Northwestern University – which was on the agenda for that evening – and keep the status quo through the end of the beach season, Labor Day, Sept. 2.

On July 10, Mr. Bobkiewicz told the RoundTable that he and Mayor Stephen Hagerty met with the IDNR Director in Springfield on May 1. At that time, the Director confirmed IDNR’s assertion of ownership, Mr. Bobkiewicz said, adding [in email correspondence], “IDNR has been working on a draft IGA [intergovernmental agreement] for the City ever since.”

Mayor Hagerty did not disclose that information at the July 8 City Council meeting, at which a draft  Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City and Northwestern University was discussed and then tabled to the July 22 meeting.

The basis of IDNR’s assertion of ownership stems from the fact that Lincoln Street Beach is newly created territory, formed by the accretion of sand due to construction at Northwestern University.

IDNR’s 2011 Illinois Coastal Management Program allows riparian owners to retain ownership of beaches created by the accretion “of sand or gravel by natural or artificial means for which the riparian owner is not responsible,” but “case law does not grant private ownership of any beach area resulting from the entrapment or retention of sand caused by construction of any type of shore structure.  … [A]ny beach area that is artificially accreted beach is legally public.”

Neither the City of Evanston nor Northwestern University has conceded that the State owns the beach; Mr. Bobkiewicz’s announcement  on July 22 is as close to a concession as has been made in the dispute over ownership. An acknowledgement – or lack of it – by either or both of them is immaterial to the State’s claim.

Until recently, most people called it the “Northwestern Beach,” and the City and the State allowed the Northwestern community exclusive use of the beach.  The City renamed it “Lincoln Street Beach” a few years ago and declared it was one of Evanston’s “six public swimming beaches,” as is now posted on the City’s website. 

Local attorney Jeff Smith, former General Council to IDNR, told the RoundTable, “What the State holds in trust for the people is the shore between the still-water mark and the high-water mark.” Put another way, he said, “Land between the water and the vegetation is subject to the rights of the people.”

                                                                                           — By Mary Helt Gavin