- The Illinois Supreme Court has ruled that school districts are subject to municipal zoning and land use regulations when constructing new facilities on school property.
- The ruling confirmed that no state statutory exemptions apply to excuse school districts from complying with local regulations.
In a long-anticipated decision, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled on September 24, 2015, that school districts are subject to municipal zoning and land use regulations. The decision in Gurba v. Community High School District No. 155 is a significant victory for municipalities.
The Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court's determination that construction by Community High School District No. 155 of bleachers at a high school football field were subject to the zoning and stormwater ordinances of the City of Crystal Lake.
District 155 decided to replace aging bleachers with much taller bleachers that were positioned for the first time very close to abutting residential property. District 155 secured approval from the Regional Superintendent of Schools but neither notified nor sought approvals from the city. The city ordered construction stopped until District 155 complied with the city's zoning and development standards, but District 155 completed construction anyway, claiming its facilities were not subject to the city's zoning authority. Three owners of the residential property sued District 155, and the District promptly filed a complaint for declaratory judgment against the city seeking a ruling against the city's claim of authority.
The Supreme Court ruled that no state statute exempted school property from the state's grant of broad zoning authority. The Court also rejected District 155's argument that because the Illinois General Assembly had constitutional authority to regulate the state's public education system, municipalities' zoning authority is preempted. Zoning regulations do not unduly interfere with the General Assembly's authority, the Court ruled. In support of its conclusions, the Court cited its seminal ruling in Wilmette Park District v. Village of Wilmette, 112 Ill.2d 6 (1986), in which it ruled that park districts were not immune from the zoning ordinances of their host municipalities.
The Illinois School Code includes specific limits on a municipality's review and inspection of school construction plans in a "Health/Life Safety Code for Public Schools." The Supreme Court rejected District 155's argument, however, that this statewide set of minimum construction standards, which does not refer to zoning, land use or stormwater management, should preempt matters ordinarily regulated locally by counties and municipalities. Zoning issues such as size, height and locations of buildings, setbacks from property lines, and due process rights of neighbors, the Court wrote, are not addressed by the Health/Life Safety Code.
The Supreme Court concluded that, as a home rule municipality, the city has the power to regulate land use within jurisdiction through zoning, even over school district property. Notably, although the case involved a home rule municipality, the decision fully supports school district compliance with non-home rule zoning regulations as well, because the Court concluded that school districts are not exempt from zoning regulations enacted under the zoning enabling statute of the Illinois Municipal Code. In its opinion, the Court noted that there is a "lack of any statutory provision expressly exempting school property from municipal or home rule zoning authority. ..." (Emphasis added.)
The Supreme Court's ruling should put to rest arguments not only that school districts are immune from local zoning regulations, but also that a municipality's zoning and land use authority applies to all entities unless specifically preempted by state law.