Months of tests were conducted on the lakefill’s proposed construction at a lab in Canada, and concluded no long-term erosion would occur because of the seawall. With this finding in hand, the Army Corps of Engineers allowed Loyola to begin construction.
Environmental groups disagreed. They argued the Corps had allowed Loyola to begin the project with inadequate research. An independent review by the environmental consulting group Great Lakes Marine, Ltd., disputed Loyola’s design group’s finding, predicting much more long-term damage than the university initially reported.
In 1988, a lawyer named Jeff Smith, working pro-bono for an environmental group called the Lake Michigan Federation, sued the Army Corps of Engineers and Loyola. They alleged the Corps failed to issue an “environmental impact statement” that would have assessed the project’s potential damage, illegally issued a permit and entered into a contract without considering potential alternatives and adequately assessing the environmental impact.
The lawsuit also accused the Corps of violating the public trust doctrine, the law which bars the state from giving away Lake Michigan lakebed.
Smith recalled the lakefill project as a clear violation of the government’s responsibility to protect the waters of Lake Michigan.
“It goes to what the heart of what Americans believe government is supposed to do. You’ve got certain things like the air, the sky, the waters [and] the wildlife that are really not supposed to be privatized. They’re supposed to be held in common for everybody, and it’s [the] government’s role … to protect that common interest.” -Jeff Smith, Environmental Lawyer
It was that final count, the public trust doctrine, on which a federal judge based his decision on June 22, 1990 that Loyola couldn’t continue its lakefill project.
The public trust doctrine originated from Roman law and has been used throughout Western legal systems ever since, according to Loyola law professor Henry Rose, who published a paper on the principle in 2013.
In the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in an 1890 case involving a Chicago railroad company that wanted to build a new rail line into Lake Michigan, that the public trust doctrine also protects large bodies of water such as the Great Lakes. That means the sale of publicly owned lakebottom to Loyola was illegal.
Loyola wasn’t the first university to try to expand its campus into the lake. In 1961, Northwestern University succeeded in growing its campus by 152 acres, setting what proponents of Loyola’s project hoped would be a precedent more than 20 years later. Northwestern’s lakefill wasn’t challenged in court, and there was an increase in environmental activism by the 1980s, which caused pushback to Loyola’s own proposal, according to Smith.
“What we have here is a transparent giveaway of public property to a private entity,” read the federal judge’s ruling in Loyola’s case. “The lakebed of Lake Michigan is held in trust for and belongs to the citizenry of the state. The conveyance of lakebed to a private party — no matter how reputable and highly motivated that party may be — violates the public trust doctrine.”
On July 11, 1990, almost three years after unveiling its lakefill proposal, Loyola announced it wouldn’t appeal the judge’s decision; the pilings that had already been installed were to be removed.
Almost 30 years later, the university continues to grow, with its largest freshman class ever enrolled in 2017. According to Jennifer Clark, who oversees the relationship between the community and the university, Loyola will continue to improve the way it works with its neighbors.
“[Future urban planning] would be a more open, inclusive, transparent process,” Clark said. “We would involve the neighbors, we would work with the Active Transportation Alliance, we would work with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, we would work with the academics right here in our own institution. We would just do it right.”
Unlike Loyola’s dispute with environmental groups during the lakefill project, the university is currently taking steps to reduce its environmental impact, according to Aaron Durnbaugh, director of sustainability at the Institute of Environmental Sustainability.
Durnbaugh said the Lake Shore Campus has been transformed, reflecting the changes in the university’s values and commitments since the 1980s. He said Loyola’s responsibility to remain sustainable is directly related to its mission as a Jesuit institution.
“It’s part of our mission, it’s part of our expectation for all of us who are part of Loyola: students, staff and faculty,” Durnbaugh said. “Sustainability helps address the problem that impacts the vulnerable people around the world and here in Chicago.”