The “Berlin Wall of Steel:” What School Districts and Municipalities Can Learn From the Crystal Lake South High School Bleacher Case

Crystal Lake South High School made headlines this fall when the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that the school was required to follow the city zoning and storm water ordinances, despite the fact that it was a public school operating under the Illinois School Code. Significantly, this will likely result in the recently constructed 1.2 million dollar bleachers being torn down, pursuant to the Circuit Court’s 2014 order, which had been stayed pending appeal.

The lawsuit was initiated when residents, who owned properties abutting the football field (and the newly constructed bleachers), complained that the bleacher expansion project was unlawful and negatively impacted their property values (dubbing it the “Berlin Wall of Steel”). When the City of Crystal Lake learned of the project, it informed the school board that it must cease all construction activities until all of the city’s zoning, storm water, and permitting requirements were met. The school district ignored this directive, maintaining that as a school district engaging in construction activities on school property, it was exempt from municipal zoning provisions. As part of its response, the school district filed a third-party complaint against the City of Crystal Lake, seeking declaratory judgment on the issue of whether, as a public school district, it was subject to the city’s zoning and storm water regulations.

The Illinois Supreme Court found in favor of the city, holding that the school district was subject to both the city’s zoning and storm water ordinances. In its analysis, it disagreed with the school district’s characterization of Section 10-22.13a of the Illinois School Code (provision authorizing a school district to seek zoning changes). While the district contended that this section of the statute was permissive, rather than mandatory, the Court found that the district’s interpretation was unreasonable because it was not supported by the plain language of the statute. In furtherance of its analysis, the Court cited Wilmette Park District v. Village of Wilmette, 112 Ill. 2d 6 (1986) as analogous, noting “absent an explicit statutory grant of immunity, the mere fact that…a local unit of government, has a statutory duty…cannot be extended to support the inference that it can exercise its authority without regard to the zoning ordinance of its host municipality.”

The Court also rejected the school district’s contention that the Illinois School Code limited review of school construction plans to the provisions set forth in the “Health/Life Safety Code for Public Schools.” Again, citing the plain language of the statute, the Court found that while the Health/Life Safety Code established minimum construction standards for facilities, it did not conflict with the type of issues addressed in zoning, and therefore did not preempt the city’s zoning and storm water ordinances.

While the City of Crystal Lake is a home-rule municipality, the court’s analysis of the issue and its findings regarding the municipal authority to regulate zoning matters does not cite any authority that would exclude non-home rule municipalities from its holding.

By: Laura M. Julien

For more information on public land use and zoning matters, please contact Steven A. Andersson, Jessica L. Briney, or Laura M. Julien, of Mickey, Wilson, Weiler, Renzi & Andersson, P.C., 2111 Plum Street, Suite 201, Aurora, Illinois 60506. Telephone Number:630-801-9699, or by E-mail at: saa@mickeywilson.com; jlb@mickeywilson.com; and lmj@mickeywilson.com.

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