Illinois Supreme Court Rules Against School District in “Bleacher Case”

In a major  decision, the Illinois Supreme Court  ruled that school districts are required to comply with the zoning requirements of local municipalities.

The issue in the case of Gurba v. Community High School District No. 155 involved whether a school district’s construction of football stadium bleachers on school property is governed by local municipal zoning ordinances. Prior to this case, it had been a long-standing practice that school district construction on school property for school purposes was not subject to the zoning authority of the local municipality, but, instead, such projects were subject to approval by the local regional office of education.

In 2013, the Board of Community High School District No. 155 decided to replace the bleachers at the Crystal Lake South football stadium. The Board’s plan included moving the home bleachers to an area that had long contained the visiting bleachers, immediately adjacent to residential property.

However, the new home bleachers were to be larger and higher than the pre-existing visitor bleachers and were also to be closer to the property line of the residential property.

The plans for the project were approved by the McHenry County Regional Superintendent of Schools. Accordingly, the district began building the new bleachers without seeking building permits, zoning approval, or storm water management approval from the City of Crystal Lake. Upon learning of the project, the City ordered the Board to stop the bleacher project until it obtained a special-use permit, a storm water management permit, and zoning variances.

The Board did not comply with the City’s order, taking the position that school district construction projects on district property and for school purposes are not subject to the zoning authority of the local municipality.

As the bleacher project was being completed, three citizens who own residential property adjacent to the new bleachers filed a lawsuit against the Board seeking to enforce the City’s zoning restrictions and arguing that the new bleachers negatively affected the values of their property.

In deciding this case, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the Board’s contention that local zoning laws do not apply to school district construction. The Court found that there are no statutory provisions that expressly exempt school property from municipal projects. To the contrary, the Court found that Section 10-22.13a of the School Code, which provides school boards with the authority to seek “zoning changes, variations, or special uses for property held or controlled by the school district,” demonstrated that school districts are subject to local zoning ordinances.

This case has far-reaching implications for both existing improvements and future plans, and may affect other municipal regulation of school districts, as well. We will address this case in our 2015 IASA Law Conferences, The Year in Review: The Highlights and Lowlights of Illinois School Law 2015.  Contact Rob Swain, Dean Krone, Bob Kohn, or James Levi with questions about how the ruling may affect your district. 

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