September 29, 2015

 By James A. Petrungaro and Parker R. Himes

            Last week, the Illinois Supreme Court, in Jeff Gurba, et al. v. Community High School District No. 155, at al., declared that school district land-use and stormwater issues are subject to municipal zoning and stormwater management.

            The dispute arose from the construction of a set of $1.2 million bleachers at the football field of Crystal Lake South High School.  Built in 2013, the approximately 40-foot-tall bleachers and press box replaced a smaller set of bleachers which previously sat on the opposite side of the field and had failed a structural inspection.  Prior to building the second set of bleachers, the McHenry County Regional Superintendent approved and issued a building permit for the project, which heightened the bleachers and moved them closer to property lines.  The district then began building the bleachers, proceeding without zoning approval from the City of Crystal Lake. After construction began, the City disapproved of the project and declared that the district should have obtained municipal zoning variances and special use and stormwater permits prior to construction.

The school district nonetheless continued construction, claiming that school property used for school purposes was not subject to local zoning laws.  Neighboring property owners then sued the district, claiming that the bleachers decreased their property values and were too large and too close to residential property lines.  The district subsequently sued Crystal Lake, seeking a ruling on whether a city could impose zoning and stormwater authority over school property, which the district contended was under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Health Life Safety Code and the regional superintendent concerning building regulations.

           The Court found that school property, even when used exclusively for school purposes, is subject to municipal zoning and stormwater authority.  While the General Assembly has placed some limits on cities’ local zoning power, no restrictions exist for a municipality’s ability to regulate zoning or stormwater management on school property.  The Court’s unanimous opinion reiterates those of the lower courts and points specifically to a provision in the School Codegranting districts the right to seek local zoning changes.  That provision would be superfluous, according to the Court, had the General Assembly not intended school property to be subject to local zoning ordinances.

           The district argued that being subject to local zoning ordinances would hinder education by interference from the municipal government.  The Court rejected this argument, stating that only those areas that directly affect education, such as curriculum, should be protected from municipal interference. 

           Under different facts, such as a scenario where the zoning regulation directly inhibits the school district’s delivery of curricular services, the Court might have reached a different conclusion.   After Gurba, however, school districts must generally comply with municipal zoning and stormwater management regulations, from which they may still receive reasonable variances.  Further, although the zoning and stormwater management regulations apply to school districts, the Court did not hold that municipal building codes apply to school districts.   At a minimum, issues related to land-use, such as set-backs and height requirements, and stormwater retention that affect the greater community are within the purview of a municipality’s authority to regulate zoning and stormwater management.