A recent opinion issued by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office states that “public school districts are subject to municipal and county zoning ordinances, except to the extent that compliance with local zoning would frustrate a school district’s statutory objectives.” While the Attorney General’s opinion is not a binding legal precedent, it is persuasive authority from the State’s top lawyer. As a result, there may be increased pressure on public school districts to, at the very least, subject themselves to the municipal zoning process. If at the conclusion of the process a school district believes that the zoning ordinance will frustrate the school district’s statutory objectives, the school district may seek redress in the courts.
For years there has been no clear answer to the question of whether school districts are subject to zoning ordinances. Illinois law exempts public school districts from compliance with local building ordinances because there is already a comprehensive set of building regulations in the School Code. It has been argued that the exemption from compliance with local building ordinances also extends to zoning ordinances. The Illinois Attorney General took up this question after receiving a letter from State Superintendent of Education Christopher Koch asking for an official opinion.
Initially, the Attorney General’s Opinion notes that while there are clear grants of authority to municipalities and counties to regulate zoning, there is no statutory provision that clearly states whether public school districts are subject to zoning laws. Therefore, the Attorney General looked at multiple statutory provisions to deduce an answer. The Attorney General stated that public school districts have only those powers expressly granted to them by the legislature. Next, it was noted that one provision of the School Code provides that a school board may seek zoning changes, variations, or special uses for property held or controlled by the school district. (105 ILCS 5/10-22.13a). This grant of authority, according to the Attorney General’s reasoning, would be unnecessary if school districts were not subject to zoning ordinances. Finally, the School Code also provides that school boards remain subject to those duties imposed upon them by other laws. (105 ILCS 5/10-20). Reading these statutory provisions together, the Attorney General concluded that public school districts are subject to municipal and county zoning ordinances.
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