Wilmette’s Elmwood Avenue beach and right-of-way is one step closer to becoming a publicly-accessible, passive-use sanctuary and nature preserve after the village’s Municipal Service Committee members unanimously decided Thursday that the option presented the best overall choice for the community.
Committee members will present their choice as a recommendation to the Village Board sometime in the coming months.
The recommendation provides a clearer vision for the future of the 80-foot wide, 600-foot long right-of-way that runs from the eastern end of Elmwood Avenue to Lake Michigan. In the past, neighbors have painted the stretch of land as a “Wild West”, free-for-all, safety hazard, where a combination of boat launches, speeding jet skis, motorbikes and unmonitored swimmers created a liability for the village and a nuisance for the neighborhood.
The passive-use option, coupled with proposed interim regulatory ordinances, would allow anyone to access the property from sunrise to sunset, would prohibit boat launchings and use of motorbikes, and includes plans for a path to be built over or through the area’s nature preserve portion.
The committee had also strongly considered two additional options: one, in which the village would have vacated the parcel and essentially sold the land to the owners of adjoining properties; and another that would have turned the right-of-way into a village park with a full-service beach.
Committee members graded the options based on total costs, impact on wildlife, effect on trees and native landscape, parking and traffic considerations, safety, impact to the surrounding neighborhood, management requirements and overall community value.
High Community Value
Several committee members said they recommended the passive-use sanctuary option chiefly because it provided the highest non-economic community value for all Village of Wilmette residents.
“We really want what’s best with the village as a whole,” said Trustee Cameron Krueger. “Community value was the highest [weighted] for me… [This] is the best compromise on how to use this land... In spite of the capital cost and economic benefit, I think that is outweighed by the community value.”
Trustees Julie Wolf and Alan Swanson both said they agreed that a passive-use nature preserve was the best choice.
Committee members said they did not want to convert the land into another full-service beach because of high associated maintenance and operational costs, as well as the increased impact such a facility would have on the native wildlife and landscape.
Trustees had previously given serious consideration to a neighbor’s offer to buy the property for the full $1.2 million appraised value. The man said he would maintain the land as a nature sanctuary, but trustees said Thursday that the option ultimately did not provide sufficient access for the public.
While selling the parcel would have netted the village a chunk of change, the committee’s recommendation could end up costing the village a quarter-million dollars.
An engineering report on the village’s website describes a vision in which the land would be used as “passive park” with a “natural and rustic pathway encouraging transitory use and enjoyment” where “natural elements are highlighted and preserved”.
In order to achieve the dual stated goals of both allowing public access and preserving the natural environment, the committee is considering building an elevated footbridge that would span the property’s protected preserves.
In total, the project could cost the village between $183,000 and $293,000, according to a document from the committee’s Sept. 12 meeting. A second option that called for a concrete path to be built through the reserve, rather than over it, was estimated to cost $158,000 to $248,000.
Krueger said the village would likely attempt to pay construction costs through a combination of public and private grants, community fundraising efforts, and donated labor and materials.
“I think there are lots of funding options available to us,” Krueger said. “I think the community has put together a groundswell movement… I think there is probably pretty good grant money to us, as well. This is a very interesting piece of property and there is probably some money there to help protect it.”
Additionally, the current construction proposal includes options that could be dropped to lower costs, such as plans for an entry structure and sign, and wiring to power security lighting near the entrance.
Krueger said he is unsure of when the committee will present its recommendation to the Village Board, but said that it would not be before the board’s Dec. 11. meeting and possibly not until the new year.
“I think we have a general consensus,” Krueger said, “but it’s putting a little more form about the different pieces that we want to look at that we talked about.”
Some specifics the committee will look to hammer out during the interim include determining the details of proposed interim ordinances that would create rules for the property, assessing what park district rules should apply to the land and figuring out how to make the right-of-way ADA accessible.
Kreuger said that whatever choices the committee makes, it will have room to make changes as it sees fit in the future.
“If we press ahead with [this option],” Kreuger said, “we retain a bunch of levers that we can pull later, and I don’t feel like we should be pulling them now. And they include things like parking, hours of access, closing of the property, day of access. There isn’t anything to say that we couldn’t go with a park district model at a later date.”