High School’s Decision To Bypass Municipal Zoning Process For Stadium Bleachers Ruled Unlawful

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In Gurba v. Community H.S. Dist. 155, a McHenry County Circuit court judge ruled that a local high school district violated the law when it refused to subject itself to the local zoning process of its host municipality. Crystal Lake South High School expanded its bleachers at its football stadium. The regional superintendent approved the construction. The bleachers, however, did not comply with certain provisions of the municipality’s zoning code and storm water ordinance, requiring variances approved by the municipality. The school district’s position was that those municipal provisions did not apply to the school district so it need not subject itself to the municipality’s zoning process to seek a variance. Adjacent property owners sued the school district, alleging that the school district was in violation of local zoning laws. The municipality also joined in the litigation and argued that the school district was subject to its municipal zoning and storm water regulations. The school district argued that school districts are created by the General Assembly and have general authority to exert powers that are not inconsistent with the School Code, and that no state law exists that subjects a school district to local zoning regulations.

The circuit court rejected the school district’s arguments and ruled in favor of the municipality, granting the municipality’s motion for summary judgment. Despite the absence of case law and Illinois statutes governing this issue, the court reasoned that a school district does not have explicit power regarding zoning or storm water ordinances. In the court’s opinion, requiring a school district to adhere to such ordinances, or at least subject itself to the zoning approval process, would not thwart a school district’s overall duties to operate schools. The court acknowledged, but did not pay deference to Section 10-20 of the School Code. That Section provides that school board powers are not limited to those powers specifically granted in the School Code and a school board may exercise all other powers not inconsistent with the School Code.

The court’s most significant concern appeared to be that the school district did not at least submit itself to the municipality zoning relief process and seek a variation. In its decision the court implied that the result may have been different if the school district had at least gone through the zoning process. In that case, if the municipality denied the school district’s zoning request, the school district would then have a stronger argument before the court that its variance request was unfairly denied and the municipality’s actions frustrated a school purpose. Such a ruling would be consistent with the Attorney General’s opinion that we analyzed in a February 6, 2012 alert. There, the Attorney General opined that public school districts are subject to local zoning ordinances, but also noted that case law provides for judicial review where zoning ordinances are administered in an unreasonable, arbitrary, or discriminatory manner to thwart or frustrate another public entity’s statutory duties.

Neither a circuit court ruling nor an Attorney General opinion is precedent setting. In light of these recent decisions, however, when undertaking significant development projects, school districts should be aware of the impact the project will have on local zoning rules and determine the best course of action in dealing with the local municipality.