Attorneys for schools in Crystal Lake CHSD 155 had appealed lower court decisions and were asking the high court to rule that school districts are not subject to municipal zoning and land use regulations. But the high court justices, who heard oral arguments in the case in May, ruled to the contrary, noting that no statute currently exempts school property from this requirement.
In the weeks since the ruling, municipal officials have said the decision has clarified the process that is mandated for school district construction projects.
Cary village administrator Chris Clark recently told the Northwest Herald that from his experiences outside McHenry County, working with school districts on capital projects has sometimes been an awkward process.
“This issue has come up, and it has been something of an unclear part of the law,” he said. “Now it’s not,” he said in an article published on Sep. 29.
The website of the Illinois Municipal League hailed the ruling as “good news for municipalities.” Author Julie Tappendorf, an attorney at Ancel, Glink, Diamond, Bush, DiCanni & Krafthefer, P.C. added that “there is no reason to believe” that the statutory power to regulate land use, as clarified in the ruling, does not also extend to non-home rule municipal governments.
Reaction from school officials, however, has reaffirmed their strong opposition to the shift of rights from local school authorities to municipal authorities. In fact, the consequence may spell serious delays and increased costs on future school construction projects.
Glen Eriksson, the CEO of Eriksson Engineering Associates, Ltd., said he has already seen two significant school building projects placed on hold by one of his firm’s biggest clients.
This ruling is going to have a huge effect on the cost of school construction in the state, Eriksson said, and will only lead to more professional fees, “but definitely justified,” for the lawyers, architects, and engineers who will have to participate in activities that were not previously required, as well as higher project construction costs.
Eriksson noted that he was speaking as a former school board member, and “not the engineer who will eventually see a growth in fees.” Eriksson served on the Grayslake CHSD 127 Board of Education for 16 years.
The ruling will also continue to ramp up the case for enacting legislative relief by exempting school districts in certain circumstances from zoning and water-use ordinances, particularly those that may arbitrarily interfere with a district’s educational purposes.
“Where a construction project is planned in response to the need for additional classrooms, for example, or other essential schooling demands, specific statutory exceptions to local zoning requirements should be written into state law,” said Ben Schwarm, deputy executive director of IASB.
Exceptions to zoning authority of municipalities have been written into state law for other purposes, as the high court ruling acknowledged. The court mentioned “express statutory exclusions” exist for “the display of outdoor political campaign signs on residential property” 65 ILCS 5/11-13-1(12), for example, and “antennas or antenna support structures that are used for amateur radio communications.” 65 ILCS 5/11-13-1.5.
The Crystal Lake district replaced the bleachers in 2013 after a failed structural inspection. The district tore down the old bleachers to build a better and larger seating area.
After construction started, the municipality informed school officials that the district needed to comply with the Crystal Lake zoning regulations, as well as a city storm-water management ordinance. The city ordered the district to delay the construction project to meet those city requirements.
District 155 followed the Illinois School Code and obtained all required permits from the Regional County Superintendent in planning and constructing the bleachers at Crystal Lake South High School. The district continued with the construction, arguing that school districts, as co-equal local government entities with boundaries that can overlap several municipalities, are not subject to the zoning and land-use authority of local municipalities. They noted that no statute specifically subjects school districts to municipal zoning and land use requirements.
But both the lower and appellate court, and ultimately the Illinois Supreme Court, rejected the arguments.
In the wake of the ruling, attorneys Nicki B. Bazer and Brian P. Crowley, with Franczek Radelet PC, say any school districts planning construction projects that might require zoning relief would be well advised to consult with their attorney from the outset. At this point, districts have no choice but to participate in the zoning process from the very beginning of a project, and they must work constructively, step-by-step with neighbors, the community, and local municipal officials Bazer and Crowley suggested.
Dismantling beginsWork was started Oct. 21 to begin taking down the Crystal Lake bleachers as part of a design plan approved earlier that week by the Community High School District 155 Board of Education. Under the plan worked out in the community, the controversial bleachers are being cut down in size to just nine rows, with the work expected to take six weeks to complete.
To read the decision issued by the Illinois Supreme Court in this case, click here. For a quick summary, IASB also has a summary on its Recent Court and Agency Decisions.