By: Brittany Flaherty Theis

In August, Governor Rauner approved Senate Bill 2186, which reiterates that school districts are subject to, and school boards must comply with, local government zoning ordinances. Senate Bill 2186 states that school districts “must comply with any valid local government zoning ordinance or resolution that applies where the pertinent part of the building, structure, or site owned by the school district is located.” Senate Bill 2186 also states that counties, townships, and municipalities shall act reasonably and in a manner that does not regulate educational activities such as school curricula, administration, and staffing and does not frustrate a school district’s statutory duties. Additionally, counties, townships, and municipalities must make efforts to streamline the zoning application and review process for school districts, minimize the administrative burden associated with the review process, and expedite the rendering of a decision. By its terms, Senate Bill 2186 is declarative of existing law, meaning it is not meant to change the substantive operation of the laws it amends.

Senate Bill 2186 directly relates to last year’s Illinois Supreme Court decision in Gurba v. Community High School District No. 155. The Gurba decision has received significant media coverage in Illinois since it was issued in September 2015.

In Gurba, the Board of Education of Community High School District No. 155 (the “Board” and the “District”) wanted to replace the bleachers at Crystal Lake South football stadium. The Board’s plan involved switching the locations of the home and visitors bleachers. Doing so would result in the home bleachers being larger, higher, and closer to the residential property line than the existing bleachers. After receiving a permit from the McHenry County Regional Superintendent of Schools, the District began construction without notifying the City of Crystal Lake (the “City”) or seeking any form of approval from the City.

Upon learning about the bleacher project, the City notified the Board that it was required to comply with the City’s zoning and land use ordinances. The City ordered the Board to stop construction on the project until it obtained a special-use permit, a storm water permit, and zoning variances. The Board proceeded with its construction of the bleachers without City such approvals, taking the position that the District’s construction was on property used for school purposes and not subject to the zoning authority of the local municipality.

Homeowners of the property adjacent to the home bleachers sued the District seeking to enforce the zoning restrictions and the Board filed suit against the City to determine whether the City had authority over the District to enforce the zoning and storm water ordinances. The circuit court ruled in favor of the City and the appellate court affirmed. On appeal, the Illinois Supreme Court was faced with the question of whether municipal zoning ordinances govern a school district’s construction of football stadium bleachers on school property.

The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court, which affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of the City and determining that the Board was subject to the City’s zoning and storm water ordinances. The court reasoned that zoning is primarily a legislative function and it is within a municipality’s province to determine the use of land within its border and to establish zoning classifications. The court determined that there were no statutory provisions exempting school property from municipal or home rule zoning authority. Specifically, the court reasoned that Section 10-22.13a of the Illinois School Code evinces the General Assembly’s intent that school districts be subject to local zoning laws because Section 10-22.13a specifically authorizes school districts to seek zoning changes, variances, or special uses for property owned or controlled by the school district. No such changes or variances would be necessary if school districts were not subject to their requirements in the first place.

The Illinois Supreme Court also disagreed with the District and held that the zoning and storm water ordinances did not unduly interfere with the General Assembly’s constitutional authority to regulate the public education system. Rather, the City’s regulation of the District’s property was for the benefit of the community as a whole and the regulations were not “the regulation of public education activities such as school curricula, administration and staffing.”

Attorneys at Whitt Law have significant experience with school construction projects and can assist your school district with its construction projects at any stage of the process – from planning and inception through completion, our attorneys are available to serve as your guide and advocate. Please contact Whitt Law Partner Stuart Whitt if you have any questions about your proposed or current construction project.

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