Opponents of the George Lucas museum proposed for Chicago’s lakefront have won the latest episode in the long running legal wars over the planned attraction, after a federal judge refused to dismiss their lawsuit against the city and park district.
U.S. District Judge John W. Darrah’s Feb. 4 opinion is the latest development in a series of legal actions concerning the museum site adjacent to Lake Michigan, south of Soldier Field. The plaintiffs, including the organization known as Friends of The Parks, and individuals Sylvia Mann and John Buenz, filed their initial lawsuit in November 2014, naming the city of Chicago and the Chicago Park District as defendants.
After a motion to dismiss won partial approval in March, the Illinois General Assembly amended the Park District Aquarium and Museum Act on April 23, specifically to allow the Lucas project to proceed. The plaintiffs filed a first amended complaint, and the city sought to have that dismissed, as well. Darrah, however, rejected that entire motion, allowing the amended suit to proceed.
Plans for the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art date to a May 2014 task force report recommending the site between Soldier Field and McCormick Place, which currently serves as stadium parking lots. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has publicly endorsed the proposal. The park district and museum signed a ground lease on Oct. 14, 2015, giving the museum “full and sole responsibility for the proposed building and has exclusive control over the construction, maintenance and operation, repair and management of the building” for the price of $10.
Although the Chicago Plan Commission, City Council Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards and the full city council have signed off on the project, the issue remains contentious because the site in question is “within Burnham Park and consists entirely of land recovered from the navigable waters of Lake Michigan, most during the 1920s.”
The complaint argued the lease should be considered illegal because land recovered from Lake Michigan is to be held in trust by the state, and transfer to a private party would violate public trust and due process and would exceed the legal authority of the involved parties, according to opponents of the project.
The city argued the legislature’s amendment of the Museum Act enabled the deprivation of the public’s interest in the land. But Darrah sided with the plaintiffs in arguing “the General Assembly, in enacting the legislation purportedly transferring control of the property, did not ‘refer specifically to the alienation, forfeiture or disposition of the land that is subject of the ground lease’ ” and as such the due process claim has merit.
Darrah detailed at length the merits of the argument the Park District’s conveyance of the land exceeds its legal power. The plaintiffs said the General Assembly did not give specific authorization for the land deal. While the city tried to counter by saying doing so would have violated the special legislation clause of the state constitution, Darrah cited several cases that show the special legislation clause does not bar public trust transfers.
The public trust claim centered on the plaintiffs’ argument the legislature cannot delegate its trust responsibilities over the formerly submerged land to “a lesser representative body,” such as the park district.
“The General Assembly may convey public-trust land as long as the transfer is consistent with the public interest and does not impair the remaining lands and waters,” Darrah wrote, noting several instances in which a court has rejected “legislative grants of public-trust land where the primary purpose is to benefit a private party.”
Though the city tried to argue the situation would correlate to how the Chicago Bears use Soldier Field, Darrah said the park district retains ownership and control of that site, also within Burnham Park, while the lease deal calls for the museum to “own its building and related improvements.” Further, the terms of the lease — a 99-year initial lease with options for two additional 99-year terms — “effectively surrenders control of the museum site.”
And finally, Darrah agreed with the plaintiffs’ dispute of the city’s claim the museum would primarily benefit the public.
Friends of the Parks is represented by attorneys with the firm of Despres Schwartz & Geoghegan, of Chicago.
The city is represented by staff attorneys from the city’s Department of Law.
The park district is represented by the firm of Burke Warren MacKay & Serritell, of Chicago.