On Tuesday, the residents and voters of Lake County learned that our elected officials feel no responsibility to their obligations.
The Lake County Forest Preserves Board voted 22-1 to walk away from a legal commitment to maintain a golf course at Fort Sheridan Preserve. LCFPD will, based on Tuesday's vote, approach the US Army and seek to remove the deed restriction included with the land transfer from the former Army base which stipulated that the land would be a "golf course...in perpetuity."
Thus ends the latest chapter in a decade-long charade perpetuated by LCFPD. During base closure, LCFPD approached the Joint Planning Commission (JPC) with an offer to buy the golf course and surrounding land for $10 million. In what was envisioned as a shining example of public-private partnership, the JPC instead granted the land to LCFPD at no charge, in exchange for LCFPD maintenance of the military cemetery and the commitment to upgrade the public golf course. The future residents of the Town of Fort Sheridan would benefit from being part of a community with numerous amenities, but as a County Forest Preserve property, those same amenities would be available to everyone, not just the neighborhood.
Over the last decade, LCFPD has reversed course in a painful display of political filibuster. First, they put the project out to bid in 2004 with so many orthogonal requirements that the bids came in millions of dollars over budget. Meanwhile, LCFPD removed the existing golf course, at the time claiming it was to prepare for the new one. Then LCFPD decided to make a mountain out of a molehill, literally, and litigated with the Town of Fort Sheridan developer over a pile of dirt that LCFPD could easily have prevented from being created in the first place. Once the litigation was resolved, LCFPD formed an advisory committee out of a curious mix of representatives, who ultimately made the weak recommendation to compromise on a 9-hole golf course and open space. LCFPD still didn't think that was enough of a death knell for the effort, so they authored a request for proposal (RFP) which created such unfavorable conditions for bidders that none of over 900 golf course developers who received the RFP would consider submitting a proposal.
Tuesday's meeting was filled with political theater and revisionist history. Claims included: The old golf course was closed because of the dirt pile litigation; the LCFPD golf courses are losing money; nobody bid on the RFP because of the climate for golf; that it would cost anywhere from $10-$24 million to build a golf course on the site. Over the years, all of these claims have been refuted with facts. The opposition's frequent argument that another golf course at Fort Sheridan would harm neighboring courses also surfaced again, as if LCFPD ever weighed competition in developing other County properties in the past.
In short, the behavior of LCFPD elected officials and staff yesterday was worse than a child caught in a lie… they continue to this day to stack one half-truth upon the next in the story of Fort Sheridan.
In my very first Patch column 15 months ago, I asked the question "what is plan B for Fort Sheridan?" I believed, then as now, that if LCFPD was going to renege on the commitment to build a golf course, at least they should develop an alternative site proposal for this lakefront property, rich in history. Over the last year, I have suggested they take cues from Openlands, who have built a wonderful preserve at Fort Sheridan - just a few blocks south of the Lake County property. Instead, LCFPD voted Tuesday, in my opinion audaciously and dishonestly, to approach the US Army to remove its legal commitment to operate a golf course at Fort Sheridan -- without a plan B. According to Commissioner Anne Bassi, a new master plan for the site would be developed if the LCFPD is successful in removing the deed restriction.
As a resident of the Fort Sheridan community that is upholding its end of the deal -- privately maintaining historic buildings, open space and even ravines -- this is the ultimate slap in the face from LCFPD. By its action, LCFPD is saying that they need not worry about what the residents think or anyone else -- they just want permission to walk away from a contract. Today it is the golf course at Fort Sheridan; what existing commitment will they renege on next? Will they continue to maintain the military cemetery? Can we expect the Parade Ground to be mowed this summer? Will the beach access be cut off? Where else in Lake County will the LCFPD staff and board consider walking away from legal obligations?
It would be so much easier if the LCFPD had invested half the energy they've used getting out of the golf course into a consensus plan for what to do with the land instead. I still think the site can be a successful and profitable golf course, especially if combined with a banquet facility/clubhouse overlooking Lake Michigan. But instead of bringing my ideas or anyone else's forward to the Army as a consensus community roadmap, LCFPD has simply said they will worry about what comes next later.
Given its decade-plus track record of failed promises on this property, I don't see how anyone -- including the US Army -- can trust the LCFPD intentions. Everyone in Lake County, for or against the golf course, should be extremely concerned about the precedent set by voting to walk away from this commitment. If our own Lake County elected officials refuse to stand up for their own honor and promise, perhaps the best outcome now would be for the US Army to act as a parent, and take back the toy from the child who has misbehaved.
Clearly there are better stewards for this property than LCFPD.