Billionaire Sparks Environmental Concerns by Removing the Lake Bluffs for His $44 Million Mansion

By: Georgia | Last updated: Jan 19, 2024

Justin Ishbia, a notable billionaire, has ignited a heated discussion following his decision to remove the bluffs from his Lake Michigan property to pave the way for a $44 million mansion.

Ishbia, co-owner of the Phoenix Suns NBA team, has instigated not just an architectural transformation but also a substantial debate, with the council and residents becoming increasingly concerned about the potential environmental impact.

The Catalyst of the Controversy: Ishbia's Construction Plans

GMToday recounts the origins of the story, explaining that the discussion within the Winnetka Village Council was sparked by Ishbia’s removal of bluffs on his property at 205 Sheridan Road. 

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This action, part of his plan to construct a lavish mansion, involved removing all greenery and leveling the lake bluffs, significantly altering the natural landscape.

The Transformation of the Bluffs

On his 3.7 acre property, the picturesque bluffs were completely leveled, eliminating all greenery. This action was a precursor to the construction of Ishbia’s enormous estate.

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Since 2020, he has acquired four land parcels along the shoreline. Three of these parcels have been merged to create space for his dream home, which will feature 68,000 square feet of living area, including both indoor and outdoor pools.

A Series of Strategic Acquisitions

The Daily Mail reveals that since 2020, Ishbia, with a net worth of $2.7 billion, has been acquiring parcels of land along the shoreline. 

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He has blended three of these parcels to construct his dream home, which boasts 68,000 square feet of living space, complete with indoor and outdoor pools.

Balancing Property Rights and Environmental Protection

The Winnetka Village Council is facing a challenging decision, as reported by GMToday. On one hand, many lakefront homeowners, like Ishbia, historically have maintained and protected the bluffs at their own expense. 

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On the other hand, there’s a growing argument for the village to step in and regulate to ensure the preservation of the natural landscape of the lake and surrounding properties.

Council's Consideration of New Regulations

On September 12, the Council held a session to discuss potential regulations for ‘bluff steep slope’ areas along Lake Michigan, the Daily Mail explained.

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In Winnetka, where the average home price is nearly $1.5 million and household income averages around $417,007, such regulatory changes could have substantial implications.

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The Council’s Response

Faced with Ishbia’s project, the trustees on the Winnetka Village Council are now deliberating whether to allow complete control over the bluffs to lakefront homeowners or to introduce regulations.

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Their main concern is to prevent ‘irreversible erosion’ at the lake’s edge, a significant environmental issue.

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Trustee Reflects on Missed Opportunities

Trustee Tina Dalman expressed regret over the lack of prior regulation that could have controlled such developments. 

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“That’s where that could have been stopped if we had greater control and we didn’t,” she stated to the Chicago Tribune, referring to the period when Ishbia petitioned the council to merge his properties.

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Debating the Necessity of Bluff Regulation

Dalman also raised a question when speaking to the Chicago Tribune about the potential negatives of bluff removal if it is backed by sound engineering. 

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She said, “Just because we don’t like somebody scooping out the bluff, which nobody here likes, I don’t know if that’s sufficient. I think we need to find the harm in order to regulate.”

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The Libertarian Stance

Former chair of the village zoning board, Joni Johnson, highlighted the village’s libertarian ethos, reflecting on its historical reluctance to impose restrictions.

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“This town is basically very libertarian. It could barely pass a leash law,” she said in conversation with The Daily Beast, illustrating the village’s traditional approach to regulation.

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Village President Expresses Unease

According to the Chicago Tribune, Chris Rintz, the Village President, queried the council on their concerns regarding the Ishbia construction. 

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“It’s big. There’s a lot of it. People are afraid,” Rintz commented to the Tribune, highlighting the scale and impact of Ishbia’s construction on the community.

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Engineering and Environmental Concerns

Caleb Barth, a marine engineer, was brought in to delineate the possibility of balancing structural engineering with environmental safety.

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He suggested that bluffs could be manipulated safely, yet concerns about erosion and environmental degradation persist. These technical insights are integral in navigating the intricate path between Ishbia’s architectural aspirations and the village’s environmental apprehensions.

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The Argument for Natural Landscape Preservation

Trustee Dearborn emphasized to the Chicago Tribune the intrinsic value of the natural landscape, suggesting that its alteration is a harm in itself, even if replaced and engineered properly. 

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This stance underlines the importance of preserving the natural state of the bluffs.

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Residents’ Concerns

One resident noted that Winnetka was already one of the wealthiest suburbs and questioned the necessity of such extravagant developments, implying that the town was fine before these changes.

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Many residents have expressed also their discontent on Nextdoor, a neighborhood social media app, where Ishbia’s planned home is described as “a cathedral erected to worship greed, narcissism, and wholesale disregard for nature.”

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Winnetka's Unique Geographic Challenge

According to GMToday, Winnetka stands out among North Shore communities for not having steep slope regulations. 

The image captures a serene view of a lake horizon seen from the coast. The water extends to the horizon, meeting a sky filled with scattered clouds

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, its bluffs are unique in structure compared to its neighbors, with varying heights from 70 feet to 25 feet, creating a complex regulatory challenge.

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Ishbia’s Plans Unveiled

As Ishbia undertook his construction project in Winnetka, he had attempted a land trade with the village, which eventually fell through.

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He assured that his team, comprising top architects and builders, is diligently following all laws. Ishbia also discussed the removal of trees and alterations to the bluff, promising restoration in line with permits received.

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Homeowners’ Stance: Opposing Additional Regulations

GMToday reports that John Edwardson, a lakefront homeowner, argued against more regulations, stating, “There wouldn’t be any bluffs near where they are today if we hadn’t as homeowners spent all the money we’ve spent.”

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 He emphasized the efforts and investments homeowners have already made in preserving the bluffs.

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The Ishbia Family’s Perspective

Kristen Ishbia, Justin Ishbia’s wife, addressed village trustees, tearfully expressing how the slow approval process is affecting their family.

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She lamented that their children are unable to start school or integrate into the community due to delays in building their home.

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Billionaires' Construction Projects Stirring Controversy Nationwide

The Daily Beast details how Ishbia’s project in Winnetka is part of a broader trend of billionaires undertaking massive construction projects in wealthy communities. 

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Similar unrest has been seen in other affluent areas, such as Palm Beach, Florida, where hedge fund tycoon Ken Griffin has undertaken significant development.

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Mat Ishbia's Ambitious Construction in Detroit

The Daily Beast also reveals that Mat Ishbia, Justin’s brother and fellow Suns owner, is causing a stir in a Detroit suburb with his own construction project. 

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He plans to build a grand chateau, which includes elaborate features such as a lazy river and trampoline park. His project has drawn both admiration and criticism from neighbors and local officials.

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Public Sentiment Has Been Varied

In Winnetka, opinions vary on Ishbia’s construction. Marilyn Zimmerman, a long-time resident, expressed indifference to the Daily Beast, stating, “It’s not hurting me. It’s increasing my land value.”

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However, Joni Johnson, former chair of the village zoning board, suggested that the town’s libertarian stance left it unprepared to handle such projects.

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Ishbia’s Defense

In response to the community’s reactions, Ishbia defended his project to The Daily Beast, stating, “Some people don’t have all the information,” and affirming that all construction has been fully permitted. 

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He highlighted his team’s adherence to legal requirements and his plans to restore the natural landscape post-construction.

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Community Voices on Protecting the Shorefront

Other lakefront property owners spoke up to GMToday about the need for protection.

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“If there are gaps in our existing rules and regulations, safety and soundness gaps, then those should be filled,” said resident Leann Pope, emphasizing the community’s concern for maintaining the integrity of the shoreline.

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The Village’s Verdict

Amidst heated discussions surrounding Ishbia’s construction, the Village of Winnetka has yet to issue an official statement.

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The residents are in a state of anticipation, looking for clarity on the council’s position regarding the environmental and regulatory aspects of the construction along the iconic Lake Michigan shorefront.

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