On September 24, 2015, the Illinois Supreme Court reaffirmed the adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” in holding that Community High School District No. 155’s bleacher construction project is subject to and must comply with the City of Crystal Lake’s zoning and storm water ordinances. The Court’s ruling in Gurba v. Community High School District No. 155 affirmed the holdings of both the circuit court and appellate court decisions. Franczek Radelet did not represent the School District, but we filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on behalf of IASB, IASA, and IASBO. The Court ruled that a home rule municipality has the power to regulate land use within its jurisdiction through zoning and that there are no statutes that exempt school property from this authority. The Court took the unusual step of including before and after photos within its decision of the area surrounding the bleachers.

In 2013, Community High School District No. 155 decided to replace the bleachers at the Crystal Lake South High School football stadium following a failed structural inspection. As part of the replacement, the District decided to demolish the existing structures and construct larger bleachers that were closer to the nearby residential property line. The District applied for a permit from the McHenry County Regional Superintendent of Schools which was approved and issued pursuant to Section 3-14.20 of the School Code.

After work on the project had begun, the City of Crystal Lake informed the District that it was required to comply with the Crystal Lake zoning and land use ordinance, as well as its storm water management ordinance. The City issued an order to the District to stop construction and to obtain a special-use permit, a storm water permit, and zoning variances. The District continued with the construction, taking the position that school districts are not subject to the zoning authority of local municipalities. 

At the time of the City’s order, three residents of Crystal Lake whose properties are adjacent to the football stadium filed a lawsuit against the District seeking to enforce the City’s zoning restrictions. The District then sought judgment through its own court action on whether its property was subject to the local ordinances. As the District’s case proceeded both the circuit court and appellate court found in favor of the City.

In its decision, the Illinois Supreme Court states that the use of land and zoning are within the powers of the local municipality to regulate unless the General Assembly has specifically exempted the entity or use. Since there are no statutory provisions restricting the authority of a municipality to regulate zoning or land use on school property, a school district is subject to municipal zoning and land use laws. Further, since the City of Crystal Lake has home rule powers and there is no statutory limit on a home rule municipality’s zoning powers over school property, the home rule authority of the City allows it to regulate the District’s property.

In so holding, the Supreme Court rejected the District’s argument that the application of local zoning laws interferes with the General Assembly’s powers over public education. Further, the Court found support for its position within the School Code which authorizes school boards “to seek zoning changes, variations, or special uses for property held or controlled by the school district.” 105 ILCS 5/10-22.13a.

The Court’s concise opinion in Gurba, unfortunately, seems to leave little room for a school district to argue that zoning regulations may in certain cases prove too onerous. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the Gurbacase dealt with rather intrusive stadium bleachers that abutted residences. If a subsequent case presented more sympathetic facts favoring a school district, (say the need for new classrooms or where the district has made efforts to minimize the impact of new facilities on the surrounding community) there may be room to convince a court that a zoning ordinance cannot frustrate a school district’s ability to provide essential educational services.

In the meantime, school districts undertaking projects that require zoning relief are best advised to consult with counsel at the earliest stages of the project. School districts should also plan, at least initially, to avail themselves of the zoning process and be willing to take constructive steps to work with the community, neighbors, and the municipality. In the majority of circumstances, such an approach should result in a positive outcome for the school district and the community. In the rare circumstance where a school district takes this approach but its plans are thwarted, court remains a viable option, but Gurba has now created a more arduous road for school districts.