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CDA investigating lakefront ownership


Outside attorney hired to research issue



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July 28, 2010 | 08:42 AM
Fontana — In a move that upset lakefront business owners, the village's Community Development Authority hired an outside attorney Monday night to independently research riparian rights along Lake Street.

Questions continue to arise on whether the two business owners along Lake Street actually have rights to Geneva Lake.

The CDA is investigating the ownership because, in September, voters will cast ballots on a $2.8 million referendum for improvements to Lake Street.

For years, questions have been raised on whether Chuck's Lake Shore Inn and Gordy's have the riparian rights to Geneva Lake.

Both business owners point to bill of sales, surveys, title policies, title insurance and building permits the village issued as proof of ownership.

Tom Whowell is an owner of Gordy's and Jamie and Carol Whowell are co-owners of Chuck's. Tom and Jamie are brothers and operate separate businesses.

Questions of ownership were most recently raised by Fontana resident Lou Loenneke. Loenneke has independently researched the issue and believes the Whowells do not have riparian rights.

Loenneke said he has reviewed pictures, old surveys, state laws and that is why he questions the ownership.

What is the CDA doing?

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Initially, the CDA authorized Village Attorney Dale Thorpe to spend up to $5,000 to research the ownership issue. However, Thorpe said several people questioned whether he could reach an unbiased decision.

"If the inquiry is to have value it will have to come from an attorney who doesn't work for Fontana," he said. "It would be an opinion of someone who doesn't receive questions on whether they occasionally eat at Gordy's."

CDA Chairman Bill Turner contacted Hank Gempeler, of Foley and Lardner. For $5,000, Gempeler will have an associate at his firm work with a title company to research the deed history of the two properties.

Then Gempeler, who has performed work for the CDA, will review the results. After the meeting, Turner said he hopes to receive a report on the finding within the next 30 days.

"In my opinion it has never been tidied up in the correct way," Turner said. "Last time we took it up it was with Ron Pollitt and we decided not to do anything in any respect. The issue keeps coming up and it needs to be put to bed."

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Last month, the Village Board tabled the issue and hasn't acted on it yet.

On Tuesday morning, Loenneke said he was glad the CDA is continuing to address the issue.

"I'm extremely pleased they selected an out of the area firm to take an objective look from the county and Whowells and the research I have done," Loenneke said. "I think it is in the best interests of Fontana to finally resolve an issue that has come up several times in the past."

The Whowells' rebuttal

Tom Whowell, a former village president, questioned why Chuck's and Gordy's is being targeted.

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He also questioned why the village is willing to spend $5,000 to investigate the issue because a single resident questions it.

Loenneke said he isn't the only person in the village who questions the ownership.

"I've had many prominent people who called me and came up to me and thanked me for pursuing this," he said. Loenneke declined to comment on who has thanked him.

Carol said one lawyer's legal opinion isn't going to stop people in the future from questioning the ownership.

"A legal opinion from another firm doesn't settle anything," Carol said.

In 1968, the village sued the owners of the Lakeview subdivision for its riparian rights. The village ultimately won that lawsuit, but didn't target other property owners.

"The village obviously researched this in 1968," Carol said. "The village choose not to after Glenwood Springs and the lakefront businesses."

Carol also compared the CDA's action to research the ownership to the recent Shirley Sherrod incident. In Sherrod's case, she was fired from a government job after a clip of a speech she gave was released. The clip appeared to have a racist comment, but that turned out not to be the case.

"They acted too fast and too foolishly," she said. "Don't be so discriminatory to our lakefront property and my ownership. You are trying to steal my business and my ownership."

Tom also warned the CDA it could be opening itself up to potential litigation.

"Read the Regional News and see the issues facing the city of Lake Geneva," he said. "The disaster isn't falling on Mirbeau."

Tom said if the research raised more questions about the lakefront ownership it would result in a expensive legal battle that wouldn't end until it reached the Supreme Court.

"If this doomsday scenario you suggested occurs, something came up in the research," Turner said.

Loenneke admitted he is concerned about possible litigation.

"I'm extremely concerned about the cost should it go there, but the upside to the village could be hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said. "I don't understand why people would be so hesitant to spend $5,000 to finally resolve and issue that has been brought up so many times in the past."

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