Ft. Sheridan Golf Promise Should Be Kept
Simplest path is to share the risk and build the legally obligated course.
In addition to it being Election Day, April 5 marks a personal milestone of sorts--I've now lived at my current home longer than any other residence in my adult life. For the last five years, I've been part of a wonderful community in the Town of Fort Sheridan. Yet I consider my life in Fort Sheridan incomplete. Without a golf course, one component of the former Army base's redevelopment remains unfulfilled.
For the last two years, I've written here and elsewhere about Lake County Forest Preserve District's (LCFPD) complete inability to see through to their legal commitment to operate a golf course in the Fort Sheridan Forest Preserves. Another spring has arrived without the promised neighborhood golf course, and the only constant is the LCFPD's ability to waste time and energy without moving forward on course construction.
Over the next few months, though, the Forest Preserve commissioners--with newly elected board president Ann Maine--have the opportunity to demonstrate their honor and leadership by moving forward on rebuilding a golf course at Fort Sheridan. Even with a successful bid, construction won't begin in 2011, so the earliest I can look forward to having Dad stop by to hit a few balls around will be 2013--and that's if and only if LCFPD does anything remotely consistent with their mission and legal responsibility.
A short history recap: During base closing negotiations in the 1990s, a master plan for Fort Sheridan was developed by federal, state and local representatives. The Lake County Forest Preserves took over responsibility for much of the open land--formerly an airstrip and missile silo field--at the northern end of the property, including a golf course built 50 years earlier. LCFPD received the land for free, with the U.S. Army's deed inclusive of a restriction requiring LCFPD to operate a golf course "in perpetuity" on the site. LCFPD commissioned two different 18-hole golf course designs over the course of a decade, then put the brakes on the project when initial bids came in higher than budgeted.
An advisory committee created by LCFPD met several times during 2009 and 2010 to explore options for the Fort Sheridan preserves. In their final meeting in November 2010, the committee provided a weak recommendation that the LCFPD issue a request for proposal (RFP) for a hybrid nine-hole golf course and open space at the site. The hybrid meets the deed restriction but not the original 2003 master plan; still, the advisory committee recommended that an RFP only be undertaken if bidding parties are willing to finance the construction costs and bear all of the risk.
Starting next week, the LCFPD committees will hear summaries of the history of the Fort Sheridan preserve and the advisory committee work. The full LCFPD board will consider options at their meeting in May and perhaps make a recommendation in June. The real question before them is: Will they honor their legal agreement to operate a golf course on the site or will they bow to pressure from opponents who have tried to apply politics throughout the process?
That there is any discussion of anything less than the promised 18-hole golf course represents successful intimidation by officers of the Illinois Audubon Society and other organizations, including an ironically named "Ad Hoc Committee for Fort Sheridan" that comprises people who mostly don't live at Fort Sheridan. They have mostly tried to use financial arguments to insert risk into the discussion of recreating a golf course on the site, but clearly their motivations are simply to have open space--not exactly in short supply in the area of the Fort Sheridan community already.
During the 2011 Highland Park election season, these opponents have attempted to strong-arm mayoral, city council and Park District board candidates into public statements against the Fort Sheridan golf course. For the less-seasoned politicians, especially in the Park District race, it has been easy politics to say "the area doesn't need another golf course." This might well be true, though no other golf course in the area exists on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, on a historical site.
And while it also might well be true that a new golf course at Fort Sheridan would draw players away from other area golf courses, this kind of "what if" politics would have held up Highland Park projects like Hidden Creek, the Recreation Center or even Port Clinton and Renaissance Place. Besides, the Fort Sheridan golf course proposal has one trump card that no other civic project in consideration bears: a legal commitment.
When the Town of Fort Sheridan began selling homes in the redeveloped neighborhood, part of the glossy brochure was a section on the plan for a world-class golf course. My neighbors often bring out that brochure when discussing the promise made to have a golf course as part of this community. Even today, the LCFPD maps on site show "future golf course" wording on the parade ground and northern section.
In legal terms, it would be reasonable to use the LCFPD signature on the deed to the land, the brochure, the maps and all the work of the last decade to support a claim of estoppel by deed, or reliance of the homeowners on the LCFPD to do what they said they would do. Nobody wants to see this end up in court, of course, but the claim would be relatively indisputable.
Thus far, the 500 families in the Town of Fort Sheridan have displayed remarkable patience. The residents have shown a willingness to work with committees, politicians and opponents toward a compromise solution for the Fort Sheridan preserves. The opposition have shown no such ability. The letters received by LCFPD against golf at Fort Sheridan -- many of which come from people who have never set foot at Fort Sheridan, or who live outside Lake County -- demonstrated no ability to compromise, just adamant assertions that the land should be left alone. I don't think that makes any sense, even if a golf course somehow proves unworkable.
The path forward for LCFPD has many options. The simplest is for the forest preserves to enter into a public-private agreement with a golf course specialist, sharing the risk and the reward of building the legally obligated course. However, the advisory committee has tried to push a position whereby all of the risk would fall to the developer--a path that makes no sense considering both the legal obligation and the "shovel-ready" nature of the property in question.
Thankfully, most of the candidates for Highland Park mayor and City Council recognize the legal complexities of backing away from the golf course, along with a lone voice in the Park District race--Scott Meyers. Some have even gone so far as to suggest ways to improve the plan, or the overall economics, considering moves such as shutting down one of the two public Highland Park golf courses in the future (either site seems like it would be a developer's dream).
There are many ways to make the Fort Sheridan site successful--add a banquet facility, change the demographics, make the course a destination. All we need is some leadership from both LCFPD and the relevant communities to demonstrate how to make it work, rather than reacting to the politics of "no."