School Boards Forced to Submit to Local Zoning Schemes in Building Athletic Facilities

—by Samuel Cohen

Sources: John Wolohan & Samuel Cohen, Zoning Regulations Dismantle School’s Bleachers, Athletic Bus., Nov. 2016, at 22; Jeff Gruba v. Community High School District No. 1, 40 N.E.3d 1 (Ill. 2015)

Abstract: On September 24, 2015, the Supreme Court of Illinois ruled that State School Boards are subject to municipal zoning regulation in building athletic facilities, relying on the provisions of the State School Code in determining as much.

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Facts and Procedural History

In 2013, the Board of Education of Community High School District No. 155 (the “Board”) determined that the bleachers at Crystal Lake South football stadium were not up to structural standards, and so decided that new bleachers should be installed. The new bleachers would “be larger, higher, and closer to the property line than the existing bleachers abutting the residences.” The Board sought project approval from the McHenry County Regional Superintendent of Schools, Leslie Schermerhorm, who approved the plans and issued a building permit. The Board did nothing to notify the city of Crystal Lake (the “City”) prior to beginning the construction of the bleachers.

At some point, the City learned of the project and informed the Board that it was not in compliance with the Crystal Lake Unified Development Ordinance because the Board failed to obtain a special-use permit, a storm water permit, and zoning variances, all of which were required under the ordinance. The Board ignored the order from the City to put the project on hold until proper permits were obtained. The Board’s cited reason for not complying with the order was that a “school district’s construction on property used for school purposes is not subject to the zoning authority of the local municipality.”

The essential issue in the suit, brought by three homeowners who own property adjacent to the school, is whether or not the Board’s reason for not complying with the City’s order constitutes a valid excuse. The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment on the issue and the Circuit Court of McHenry County awarded summary judgment in favor of the City. This ruling was affirmed on first appeal and was then appealed to the State’s highest court.

The court determined that since there were cross motions for summary judgment there was no issue of fact and only a question of law was involved. The court stated that its primary goal in statutory interpretation is to give effect to the legislature’s intent. The Board asserted that there were multiple alternative statutory interpretations that justified their exemption from the municipal zoning ordinance at issue.

Issues

            The first theory that the Board put forward for why it was exempt from municipal zoning regulations was that the General Assembly of the state has exempted certain entities from municipal zoning regulations and that the Board fell into this category. However, the court found no statute limiting a municipality from regulating zoning or storm water management on school property. Further, the court found that since the City was a home rule municipality (a municipality with the power to perform any function not expressly granted to the state or federal government as long as it is not in violation of any state or federal law), it had even greater authority to impose its zoning ordinances on the Board since no federal or state legislation preempted it.

The Board’s argument in the absence of a statutory provision that expressly exempts the school is that subjecting the schools to municipality zoning ordinances will “unduly interfere with the General Assembly’s constitutional authority to regulate the public education system.” The court found that this to be an unfounded claim and that, in fact, the School Code approved by the General Assembly supported a contention that the General Assembly intended to make schools subject to municipal zoning laws. This was based on section 10-22.13a of the School Code, which authorizes a school board “[t]o seek zoning variations, or special uses for property held or controlled by the school district.” 105 ILCS 5/10-22.13a (West 2012). Looking at the language of the provision, the court held that it would be illogical to conclude, as the Board contended, that the provision creates a permissive power to make such requests and that this power does not create an obligation on the Board to seek such an approval. The court found the most natural reading of section 10-22-13a conferred a power to request zoning variances because schools fall within local zoning regulations and therefore need to be able to request variances to be in compliance.

The Board alternatively contended that the provision of section 10-22-13a only applied to school district property not used for school purposes. The court rejected this approach as not part of a plain language reading of the provision. It also looked at a different case, Wilmette Park District v. Wight & Co., 490 N.E.2d 1282 (Ill. 1986), in which a parks department made a similar argument to the Board and the court rejected that argument.

The final theory for the Board’s contention that it is exempt from municipal zoning schemes is that the Health/Life Safety Code for Public Schools (Health/Life Safety Code), created under the School Code passed by the General Assembly, “limits municipalities’ review and inspection of school construction plans[.]” The provision of the Health/Life Safety Code that the Board cited as a basis for its exemption said in pertinent part that municipalities were authorized to register with the regional superintendent of schools to receive notice of school construction plans and then object in writing to the plans. The Board contends that because the City did not register to be notified it is estopped from objecting to the project.

The court also rejected this theory, finding that the Health/Life Safety Code is a building code, which has different goals and purposes than local zoning regulations. This is because the concerns of zoning ordinances (size, height, set back from property lines) are not addressed in building codes. Therefore, in the absence of evidence from the building code that it intended to address zoning issues, the court rejected that the Health/Life Safety Code preempted or limited the City’s authority over land use within its jurisdiction. Since none of the theories put forward by the Board for their exemption from municipal zoning schemes were accepted by the court, the judgment for the City was affirmed.

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