December 9, 2014

Star Wars Episode VI.I: Anti-development Strikes Back

By Ethan W. Blevins Attorney

When Luke Skywalker crash-landed on Yoda’s swampy planet, Luke turned to R2D2 and said, “If you’re saying that coming here was a bad idea, I’m starting to agree with you.” George Lucas may be starting to feel the same regret about the location of his proposed Lucas Museum of Narrative Art.

Lucas entered into an agreement with Chicago to build the museum on park land along Chicago’s lakefront.  But an anti-development group has sued to stop the museum, claiming they want to protect Chicago’s natural landscape for all citizens and maintain public access to the shore.  But I wonder if they just don’t like Jedi.  After all, the land set aside for the museum is not a nature preserve–it’s a parking lot. And the museum has agreed to “expand the green or landscaped open space in the Project Area, including replacing existing surface parking lots with natural landscaping.” Surely a green scape is an improvement over concrete.  And the museum has also agreed to improve pedestrian and bike access to the lakefront.

To fight the museum, the plaintiffs rely on an ancient legal rule called the public trust doctrine. That doctrine says states should keep bodies of water open to the public for navigation and commerce. The plaintiffs, however, argue that the public trust also extends to the land around Chicago’s lakefront because it used to be submerged beneath the lake. They also argue that the museum will violate the public trust by hindering access to the water.

This legal theory has problems. For one, the public trust doctrine protects the public’s use of waterways, not shoreline. Plus, the state had already conveyed the property to Chicago years before. If the lakefront really is part of the public trust, that original conveyance might have been subject to a legal challenge. But the public trust doctrine doesn’t limit what the City does with its own property. And finally, the state can convey property subject to the public trust for use by private parties, so long as the conveyance does not overly burden public use.  Here, the museum is unlikely to create such a burden, particularly where Lucas has agreed to beautify the area and improve public access.

Museum supporters shouldn’t worry. Once George Lucas deals with this minor disturbance in the force, he should be able to build a fully armed and operational museum.

To learn about PLF’s fight against expansion of the public trust doctrine, go herehere, and here.

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