Stable Beaches in Winnetka

Gazette Article by: Charles W. Shabica, Ph.D. and Dana Vale Shabica
Appeared in the Gazette: Winter 1999

How to Pay for Them

In the last three issues of the Gazette, the history and development of the Winnetka lakefront were presented in the context of regional coastal evolution.

Scientists and engineers have shown that, unlike the sandy coast of New Jersey or the South Shore of Martha’s Vineyard, Illinois lakefront erosion can be stopped. Most of Winnetka’s coastal bluffs have been stable for nearly one hundred years. During this time, the Vineyard has lost more than a thousand feet of shore to storm wave attack. Winnetka lost no land to erosion, and Chicago gained some, namely the lakefills, breakwaters, and barrier islands of Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmstead. Because the Chicago lakefront parkland was built in water 10 feet or more deep, it does not have the lakebed erosion problems we now face on the North Shore.

Protecting North Shore bluffs has cut off the sand supply to our beaches, exposing the near-shore clay lakebed to irreversible wave erosion. Today, small stone breakwaters (miniature barrier islands) are the method of choice for protecting the lakeshore and Winnetka’s beaches.

During the next 30 years the threat of deepening water next to our bluffs will make larger barrier islands, built farther offshore, an attractive long-term management alternative to the huge revetments or seawalls that would otherwise be necessary. In any case, the costs will be very high.

Ocean coastal states facing high shore-protection costs raise funds through taxation and federal subsidy. New Jersey, for example, collects a tax on real estate transfers to fund shore protection projects like beach nourishment. These dollars, however, typically come with state-mandated regulations and bureaucracy.

Another solution is being used on Martha’s Vineyard. There, a public agency called the Land Bank Commission has, within a short time, altered the face of the island. Using a tax-deductible real estate transfer fee, paid by the buyer, the commission protects the environment through open space acquisition and maintenance. Administered by locally elected officials, the commission is responsible for adopting management plans for land holdings, including the waterfront, beaches, scenic vistas, and surrounding areas. Today, the Vineyard’s land bank is responsible for the protection of 1,300 acres of land and is considered a great success.
Winnetka has a history of resistance to external funding and the inevitable loss of control it carries with it. Whether it be schools (we have some of the best in the nation), electricity (we have our own power plant), or the shore (we do not have federal coastal zone management), the village has a tradition of “doing its own thing.” Many would agree that our community is a better place for it.

Considering our record of independent and creative approaches to dealing with municipal issues, seeking funding from the federal state government may be a solution that is not acceptable to Winnetka residents. Most coastal states, including Wisconsin and Michigan, are considering taxation as a means for funding and regulating coastal management. It behooves us to develop a local management plan that can be a model for other communities, before one is imposed on us.

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