Appellate Court Sides with Municipality in Dispute with School District Over Application of Municipal Zoning Rules

September 29, 2014

By Anthony Scariano III

Recently, in Gurba v. Community High School District No. 155, the Illinois Appellate Court held that school districts located within home-rule municipalities are subject to local zoning ordinances. You may even recall the highly-publicized events that gave rise to the litigation.

In response to a failed inspection of the Crystal Lake South High School football bleachers, the school district decided to construct new $1.8 million bleachers. But the school district did so without notifying the City of Crystal Lake or seeking an exception from the city’s zoning code. Neighboring homeowners were disturbed by the new bleachers’ stature and proximity to their homes and eventually sued the school district. The school district maintained that it was not subject to the city’s zoning ordinances. The trial court ruled in favor of the city, and the school district appealed.

The Appellate Court rejected the argument that ISBE’s Health/Life Safety Code shields school districts from municipal zoning burdens. The court noted that the Health/Life Safety Code makes no mention of zoning issues and thus could not preempt the city’s zoning code.

The court recognized that the Illinois Constitution gives the State, not municipalities, broad authority when it comes to regulating education. However, the court stated that provisions of the Illinois Constitution infer that “in the case of a conflict between a home-rule unit and a school district, there is a slight bias toward the home- rule unit.”

Finally, the court held that because the School Code allows school boards to seek zoning variances regardless of whether they are located within a home-rule unit, the law indicates an intent for school districts to comply with municipal zoning regulations.

While the court’s decision only pertains to school districts located within home-rule municipalities, it underscores the importance of consulting with your attorney before construction projects begin. The court’s deference to the School Code’s provision on zoning may mean that schools need to seek local zoning oversight regardless of the municipality’s home-rule status.