would be superior to those of the public. The enabling legislation gives Loyola the power to control public access to the property. However, as the property currently exists, citizens have access to Lake Michigan, free "from the obstruction or interference of private parties." Illinois Central Railroad Company v. Illinois, 146 U.S. at 452. The discretion vested in Loyola by the legislature is precisely the type of restriction which the public trust doctrine is intended to proscribe.
Loyola suggests that we should not apply the public trust doctrine because the lakefill will increase the public's opportunity to enjoy that portion of the lakefront. Loyola observes that the existing shoreline is privately owned by Loyola, with no right of public access. In addition, this portion of the lake shore has been damaged by erosion. Therefore, Loyola reasons that if it is allowed to complete the lakefill, the public will be in a better position to enjoy the lake because of the aesthetic improvement to the coastline and the property on the whole.
This argument is seriously flawed. Loyola ignores the fact that the public will have to sacrifice 18.5 acres of publicly held land in order to obtain a coastline to which it has unlimited access. Moreover, it glosses over the fact that the public is actually gaining nothing. The public currently has unrestricted access to the submerged lands which will become the new coastline. In reality, the public is losing its right of access to the portion of the lake which would become the interior portion of the lakefill. In essence, Loyola's argument that the public will gain from the construction of the lakefill is merely a value dependent assessment of the best use of the property. This judgment is not only highly subjective, but also irrelevant to an analysis of the propriety of a grant of public land.
Loyola also argues that we should be deferent to the Illinois legislature's determination that the grant at issue did not violate the public trust. In both the debate before the law was passed and in the legislation itself, the legislature acknowledged that it held the lakebed in trust for the public and declared that the grant would not violate this trust because of the project's numerous public benefits. According to Loyola, we should yield to this specific legislative consideration of public interest.
However, this claim is incorrect both as a matter of logic and precedent. The very purpose of the public trust doctrine is to police the legislature's disposition of public lands. If courts were to rubber stamp legislative decisions, as Loyola advocates, the doctrine would have no teeth. The legislature would have unfettered discretion to breach the public trust as long as it was able to articulate some gain to the public. Moreover, Illinois courts have acknowledged that courts are not encumbered by legislative expressions of public interest. For example, in People ex rel. Scott v. Chicago Park Dist., 360 N.E.2d at 781, the Illinois Supreme Court stated that, "while courts certainly should consider the General Assembly's declaration that given legislation is to serve a described purpose . . . the self-serving recitation of a public purpose within a legislative enactment is not conclusive of the existence of such purpose." Id., quoting People ex rel. City of Salem v. McMackin, 53 Ill. 2d 347, 291 N.E.2d 807 (Ill. 1972). See also, Paepcke v. Public Building Comm. of Chicago, 263 N.E.2d at 16 (Court should be skeptical of governmental conduct allocating resource to the self interest of private parties). Therefore, we find that the legislative determination that the lakefill would serve the public is no obstacle to our conclusion that the grant was in breach of the public trust.
Finally, although the argument is not specifically leveled at the public trust claim, Loyola suggests that we should withhold equitable relief because the Federation unreasonably delayed the filing of this action. We assume that Loyola is attempting to raise the affirmative defense of laches. At the outset, we note that the doctrine of laches is disfavored when the defense is raised against a plaintiff who is attempting to protect a substantial public interest. See, e.g., Jicarilla Apache Tribe v. Andrus, 687 F.2d 1324, 1337 (10th Cir. 1982); Daingerfield Island Protective Soc. v. Hodel, 710 F. Supp. 368, 373 (D.D.C. 1989); Connecticut Fund For Environment, Inc. v. Upjohn Co., 660 F. Supp. 1397, 1413 (D.Conn. 1987); Association Concerned About Tomorrow, Inc. v. Dole, 610 F. Supp. 1101, 1118 (D.C. Tex. 1985). The public interest at stake in this litigation is significant. Because of the magnitude of the potential loss of public access to Lake Michigan, the burden on Loyola is a heavy one.
We find that the Federation's public trust claim is not barred by laches. Laches is an equitable doctrine that is applied at the discretion of the district court. Zelazny v. Lyng, 853 F.2d 540, 543 (7th Cir. 1988). An essential element of laches is a lack of diligence by the plaintiff in pursuing its claim. Id. at 541; Farries v. Stanadyne/Chicago Div., 832 F.2d 374, 378 (7th Cir. 1987).
The Federation's attempts to oppose the lakefill were persistent and diligent. It doggedly pursued its objections to the project before the Corps until the permit was issued on April 16, 1990. The Federation filed its complaint before this Court on May 16, 1990. Although it is conceivable that the action might have been filed more quickly, we do not find the Federation's delay to be unreasonable given the complexity of the issues and the need to obtain requisite factual information before filing the action. Therefore, because of the substantial public interest at stake and the inadequate showing of dilatory conduct on the part of the plaintiff, we find that the equitable doctrine of laches does not preclude the Federation's claim for injunctive relief.
What we have here is a transparent giveaway of public property to a private entity. The lakebed of Lake Michigan is held in trust for and belongs to the citizenry of the state. The conveyance of lakebed property to a private party -- no matter how reputable and highly motivated that private party may be -- violates this public trust doctrine. This improper conveyance is not made any more palatable by attaching cosmetic conditions to the conveyance which permit restricted public access to the private property. Because the conveyance of lakebed to Loyola violated the public trust doctrine, Loyola, its agents and contractors are, effective immediately, permanently enjoined from placing any fill material in the lake or proceeding, in any manner, with further construction of the lakefill. Loyola should give prompt notice of this ruling to all interested parties. If it so chooses, the Federation may submit a draft order, consistent with this ruling, to effectuate or enforce this injunction.
It is so ordered.