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All the way to the banks: who deserves riverfront property rights?



Along the North Branch of the Chicago River between Irving Park Road and Lawrence Avenue, the flatland slips away to a hidden place.

Some kids play war games down there, their cryptograms taken for gang signs. Some children hunt frogs, seizing and holding them pop-eyed in their grimy hands.

Other people drink away the hours to take the edge off of some pain. They especially like to drink Olde English 500 out of magnum-size bottles that they leave for some long-gone Mommy to pick up.

Raccoons lounge in the crotches of gnarled willows and steal out at night to hunt leftover pizza and bugs and rats. They hover over the sidewalks with their peculiar sideways glide. Red fox have even made it this far south. Possums den up in rotting tree stumps. An American kestrel swoops down on a scurrying mouse. Squirrels rattle the branches and chatter at intruders.

Old couples steal away under the canopy to rest on a bench and watch the mallards dabble. Sometimes great blue herons poke around the shore.

Fathers have taken their sons there to talk serious business in a quiet place where they somehow connect by focusing on the river.

People dump toilet bowls and tar-paper shingles, lawn clippings and branches. Other people pull out the toilet bowls and tar-paper shingles and chase rogue trucks down the alley trying to remember the license plate number.

Some rake out the piled brush and trim back the quick trees, the box elder and ailanthus, to encourage plant growth on the steep bank.

Some people fence the riverbank off as their own. They invest in ugly and elegant bank treatments, decks, docks, and plantings. They squat on public lands the way all of Europe pushed its way onto the North American bench. They took it; they want to keep it. Who's gonna move them off?

This is our Chicago river, strangely evolved descendant of the original meandering wetland stream. Engineers' transits have simplified its form, channelized its bed, and changed its character. Richard Carter, the Evanston naturalist, describes the channel's morphology like this: There is the river surface itself. Then there is the flat plain above. In between is a place called the Wild Zone.

The Wild Zone is one of the last frontiers in North America. Skirmishes have never ceased, Frederick Turner notwithstanding. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District owns the riverbank. But where are they? Where do they live? And who owns them? Anyway, my neighbor Bill says he owns his riverbank. He's not kidding. Says it's on his deed. The city's legal department says "their position is" that no area resident has the right to claim the land or restrict its public use by building fences or docks. The MWRD calls these things encroachments, and the people who build them encroachers.

The encroachers cry foul. They tended to their section of bank when nobody cared. When the channel ran like sewage past their houses. They feel they deserve to have their boat docks and river decks legitimized.

Meanwhile, the possums and raccoons and coyotes remain unimpressed, building their homes and walking the fence lines along this long and narrow strip of green space. They let Richard Carter speak for them, advocating preservation of this critical wildlife corridor.

Laurene von Klan, director of Friends of the Chicago River but sounding like Chief Seattle, says the land belongs to the whole community, including bird-watchers, kids who wear their caps backward, men who drink Olde English 500, old couples in love, and young couples having arguments.

But while we were all playing this summer the state legislature passed Senate Bill 1285, a law that enables the MWRD to sell off riverbank property along the North Branch from Belmont to Lawrence. In 1991 a riverside property owner south of Montrose set off a policy review that led to the legislation by unceremoniously constructing an eight-foot-tall chain-link fence and dock extravaganza. Complaints to the alderman were redirected to the MWRD.

The sellout offer goes only to property owners who live adjacent to the river and have existing improvements on the bank. Sale of these public lands to private owners was one of a number of options suggested to the MWRD board by their counsel, James Murray, as a way to escape the inevitable liability worries caused by use of the bank for recreation. As the river water quality improves to the point of being Ski-Doo-able, it's only a matter of time before some accident becomes litigable. It wasn't the option preferred by staff at the MWRD. But somebody liked it. Who?

"The community," says district president Thomas Fuller.

Not all riverfront landowners want to own the land. "What would I do with it?" asked one older resident, whose lovely backyard looks over the river at the Ravenswood el crossing. She told me she didn't have time to go to meetings and fight about these things. She has yard work to do. She tries to keep after the dried-out leaves and plants so local goofballs don't try to start a fire there like they did last year.

The community Fuller was speaking of is a group called River Residents, headed up by John Friedman, past president of the Ravenswood Manor Improvement Association. Friedman and his group believe that they already have riparian rights, based on a 1903 handwritten covenant that permits residents to build bridges, slips, and tunnels under, over, and alongside the river. Compared to those, what's a dock or deck? Many of the structures are old and have gained a certain legitimacy by their persistence.

One riverfront neighbor, Martin Cohen, a member of both Friedman's group and Friends of the Chicago River, says the authorization bill was a surprise. River Residents hadn't been clamoring for the sell-off option. "I have no need to own the riverbank. We think we're the best friends the river ever had. We do think this document gives us certain rights. No one has challenged for 90 years the use of the riverbanks or the docks."

But others feel that residential bank treatments, starting at Lawrence and continuing south to Berteau, are not appropriate. "They're mostly ugly, ramshackle docks and helter-skelter plantings, with an occasional Taj Mahal dock and deck combination for which they must have chopped down and Wolmanized a small forest," one canoeist told me. "At the edge of each lot the treatment changes, from Bavarian style to suburban gothic to Handy Andy nouveau-something."

Friedman describes the short residential stretch this way: "Imagine that you're walking along the coastline in California. There are miles and miles of beautiful beach, and you walk it with one foot in the water and one on the sand. But then you come to an area where a mountain ridge reaches out into the sea. There's no way to get around it. It's just a stony cliff that meets the water. Your walk is interrupted. But it's OK. It's a special place. That's what our little section is like. It's unique."

Cohen feels that this "small stretch, half a mile in a hundred-mile river system," should be given special consideration. "What the riverfront property owners want is some end to the uncertainty regarding their status." He feels the land should remain public but structures should be issued permits and be required to carry insurance and meet building codes.

This was in fact one of the options suggested by the MWRD staff.

Another option suggested was the forced removal of all encroachments. But recognizing that this move might be a public relations disaster, they put it to one side.

"Selling off public land, open space, is just bad policy," Von Klan says. "It's an irrevocable loss to the people. Given that taxpayers have spent roughly $15 billion to clean up Chicago's waterways, shouldn't they have a chance to enjoy them?"

Teachers at the nearby Waters School are anxious to gain access to the river for quality testing and other components of their river-studies curriculum. "It's hard to study the river if we can't even get to it," fourth-grade teacher Sally Ranson says.

Jessica Garcia, an Amundsen High School student, wrote in a school publication, "I went to River Park [for summer camp] for about eight years. Since I was there I never knew there was a river there because they had it all caged up. All of us look at the cages and we thought, 'Why is that river all caged up?'"

The Chicago Park District, the largest lessee of riverfront land, has traditionally restricted access to the river with tall chain-link fences, citing safety reasons. As the river converts from embarrassment to asset, pressure is increasing for the ugly fences to come down. A southward extension of Ronan Park is being constructed at Lawrence and the river. Besides being a portal for a future continuous riverside trail that will lead to LaBagh Woods (at Cicero and Foster), the park will be the first to give free and welcome access to the water's edge. For the first time park benches will be oriented toward the river instead of away from it.

Friends of the Chicago River are mainly concerned that the land remain available as green space. "While it's not likely that a continuous trail on this part of the river could be established tomorrow, due to the lay of the land and the proximity of the current buildings, the possibilities for a continuous greenway in the future are great," says Von Klan.

"Selling pieces of the river's edge will also make the river more difficult to manage and restore, simply because there will be more parties involved."

After a few head-bashing get-togethers between the MWRD and open-access proponents, President Fuller announced a moratorium on the sell-off until early next year. For the immediate future the district will go with its utility option: do nothing.

It was pointed out to Fuller that the legislation doesn't require home owners to purchase the property. In fact, if they do buy it, the law precludes them from improving or expanding their structures. If they don't buy, they would seem to remain protected by the 1903 covenant. Fuller responded with great zest that "if the board goes through with the decision and [residents] refuse to buy the property they built on at fair market price, then we'll take down those docks immediately and send them the bill. We're not looking after private interests. We're protecting taxpayers."

Cohen believes "there are other ways to resolve the problem that address the district's liability concerns, the Friends' access and green space concerns, and the property owners' uncertainty anxieties."

The legislation, strangely, would seem to resolve none of these. Liability, access, and the status of the structures of nonparticipating owners are left up in the air. And though there are no home owners south of Berteau, the legislation extends the sell-off boundary to Belmont.

This has led to unsubstantiated speculation that the legislation was put in place to jigsaw in later authorization for the sale and commercial exploitation of riverfront property south of Berteau. Grebe's boat yard, longtime winter dry dock for the Wendella Tour boats, closed down this year. It, along with the Bally property at Belmont and the river, is purportedly being considered as a site for a 12-acre residential development. Given the recent condo-mania on remnant urban open space ("River's Edge" and "The Conservancy" are projects on previously open lands at Saint Lucas Cemetery and the former TB sanatorium at North Park Village), it's plausible that unseen players had a hand in the legislation.

The relatively innocent lusting after a riverfront dacha behind a person's house is one thing. But for commercial property owners, title to unrestricted riverfront footage could pay off big. Although city planners say that Chicago's setback guidelines for riverfront development remain intact, a recent Supreme Court decision restricted a municipality's ability to mandate public access to privately held riverfront. With the nuisance of public accessibility and open-space treatment requirements somewhat reduced, who knows what plans might be gestating in some developer's mind. Venice River Condos? Riverfront saloons? Gambling at docked boats? Why not? This is the last frontier.

Von Klan feels that for the moment the river's future as a community asset is bright, but that decisions about its fate need to be made by the whole community. To that end she's organized all the parties in the dispute to meet and conjure up a solution that works for everyone. "We're not here to criticize one attempt at a solution. We're here to find a better one, together."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.

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