In a strongly worded 42 page decision, the Second District Appellate Court ruled in Gurba v. Community HS Dist. 155, that school districts are subject to the zoning regulations of home rule municipalities. The decision answered a legal question that, up until last week, had remained unresolved. If the case is not appealed, it will likely serve as the seminal case on this issue.

This case concerned the Community High School District 155’s construction of bleachers for the Crystal Lake South High School football field. The School District constructed the $1.8 million bleachers apparently without consulting with and without approval from the City of Crystal Lake. The bleachers violated a number of the City’s zoning regulations. This was not a sympathetic set of facts for the School District and other facts may have resulted in a more tempered result. Neighbors sued the School District and the City was made a party. The School District through its attorneys (our firm was not involved in this matter) argued at the trial court level that the School District was entirely exempt from municipal zoning regulations. To support its position, the School District put forth a number of arguments including that the City was preempted from applying its zoning regulations on school property because the state constitution declares public education to be a matter of statewide concern. The trial court disagreed with the School District and the Appellate Court affirmed the trial court’s decision.

In an opinion which essentially rejected all of the School District’s arguments, the Appellate Court reached some sweeping conclusions, including that

  • in a conflict between a school district and a home-rule unit, the home-rule unit’s powers should be given precedence;
  • while a home-rule unit may not enact ordinances that infringe upon the realm of public education, such as by changing local graduation requirements, zoning and land use do not impinge upon any facet of public education; and
  • there is little intersection between zoning and public education and, therefore, a home rule municipality should not be precluded from enforcing its zoning ordinances against a school district.

In reaching its decision, the Appellate Court emphasized the language contained in Section 10-22.13a of the Illinois School Code, 105 ILCS 5/10-22.13a. This Section provides that local school boards may seek zoning changes, variations, or special uses for property held or controlled by the school district. The Court found that the existence of this language displays the legislature’s intent that school districts are required to comply with municipal zoning regulations and apply for variations, special use permits, and other zoning relief when necessary for school district property. According to the Court, if that was not the case, the language would be superfluous. The Court also appeared to agree with the Illinois Attorney General’s 2012 opinion that school districts are subject to municipal zoning regulations, which we reported on here.

Quite concerning for school districts is that the Appellate Court, unlike the Attorney General, did not acknowledge that in certain circumstances zoning regulations may frustrate the school district’s educational purposes. This argument did not apparently come up in this case. The Attorney General, in its opinion, provided that if zoning regulations frustrate a school district’s educational purposes, the school district may seek redress. While the Appellate Court paid brief lip service to this portion of the Attorney General’s opinion, a conclusion could be reached from the tenor of the Appellate Court’s opinion that zoning and the provision of education are distinct matters that do not conflict. Therefore, a school district must adhere to the municipal zoning regulations regardless of the impact on the school’s educational program. While it is certainly reasonable to conclude that the location and size of football stands may not frustrate a school district’s ability to provide educational services, a set of facts could easily emerge where zoning regulations inhibit the ability of a school district to construct a new classroom or to purchase land and build a school. In most cases, intergovernmental cooperation should prevail, but this case provides additional ammunition for municipalities to enforce their zoning regulations in an overly restrictive manner.

The Court’s opinion is limited to the zoning authority of home rule municipalities. Whether school districts are subject to the zoning regulations of non-home rule municipalities remains unanswered. Further, this opinion only pertains to home rule municipal authority related to zoning regulations. The Appellate Court did recognize that municipal building codes do not apply to school districts. Instead, the Health and Life Safety Code for schools prepared by ISBE and the respective regional offices of education have jurisdiction regarding school building code matters.

As school districts consider new construction, it is imperative to work with their architects and attorneys to analyze the relevant zoning regulations and determine if the construction complies with the zoning regulations or if a variation, special use permit, or other zoning relief is required.