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City, park district say lawsuit challenging George Lucas museum site is "entirely meritless"

By Kenneth Lowe | Dec 22, 2014

The dispute over the future location of the planned George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art continued this month, as the Chicago Park District and the City of Chicago separately moved to dismiss the lawsuit that seeks to prevent the museum from breaking ground in city's Museum Campus area.

Friends of the Parks, an advocacy group for local parks, and two residents filed suit in November in Chicago's federal court, asserting the lakefront location that was recommended by a task force, endorsed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and listed in a memorandum of understanding between the park district and “Star Wars” filmmaker George Lucas’ museum does not belong to the city or park district.

Because the proposed site of the planned museum "is located within Burnham Park and consists entirely of land recovered from the navigable waters of Lake Michigan," the plaintiffs contend it is being held by the state under the public trust doctrine, and therefore belongs to Illinois citizens, not the city or park district.

In its Dec. 12 motion to dismiss the suit, the city said the group's original claims were “based on erroneous factual and legal assumptions, and otherwise entirely meritless.”

“Even if Plaintiffs' claims were justiciable, they are substantively deficient,” the city asserts.

The city alleges the plaintiffs' argument that "the land in question is held in trust by the State of Illinois and that the approval of the Illinois General Assembly is required but has not been obtained ... fails because title to the land is actually held by the Park District, and the Illinois General Assembly long ago granted the Park District the authority to locate museums on this land.”

Like the city, the park district in its own motion to dismiss contends the General Assembly gave it explicit authorization for use of the land in question under the Park District Aquarium and Museum Act.

The city further claims the parks group's claim that the proposed location of the museum “violates the public trust doctrine” is not valid because the park district will retain control of the land and because the museum will have “myriad public benefits.”

The city also argues the plaintiffs' equal protection claim fails because they can’t allege that similarly situated groups are being treated differently.

The planned museum, which was at the center of efforts by several major cities to woo in developers, will be operated by a nonprofit company. It is set to be built in the parking lots south of Soldier Field, where it would join the Field Museum, Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium.

U.S. Judge John Darrah in late November ordered the city and park district not to touch the property at the crux of the lawsuit before a Feb. 26 hearing on the motions to dismiss.

To bolster its contention that "[t]here can be no question that the Museum will provide clear benefits to the public, and it therefore does not violate the public trust doctrine," the city points to the memorandum of understanding between the park district and museum.

The memorandum, the city asserts, demonstrates the museum will benefit the public because it "will expand cultural and educational opportunities in Chicago, increase the green space in the Project Area, and improve access to Northerly Island Park."

It also states the museum must comply with the Park District Aquarium and Museum Act,  70 ILCS 1290/1, which "requires that museums located in a public park be open without charge to any children enrolled in school in grades between kindergarten through twelve, when they are accompanied by a teacher, and be open without charge to any residing in Illinois for a period equivalent to 52 days, at least six of which must be in the summer."

The city is represented by William Macy Aguiar and Ellen W. McLaughlin with the city's law department. The park district is represented by Richard W. Burke, Joseph P. Roddy and Susan M. Horner of Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella P.C. in Chicago.

The plaintiffs-- Friends of the Parks, Sylvia Mann and John Buenz-- are being represented by Chicago attorneys Thomas H. Geoghegan, Michael P. Persoon, Sean Morales-Doyle and Carol Tran Nguyen of Despres, Schwartz & Geoghegan Ltd.

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