by Brian J. OConnor (Fall 2015)

The Illinois Supreme Court recently ruled that municipal zoning ordinances apply to a school district’s construction of bleachers on school property. Gurba v. Community High School District No. 155, 2015 IL 118332. This outcome surprised many school administrators and local inspectors who assumed the opposite.

The question before the court in Gurba was whether the school district needed to comply with municipal zoning and storm water regulations in constructing replacement bleachers to be located on school property. The court affirmed both circuit and appellate courts in holding that the school must abide by those municipal regulations.

Municipalities and other select units of government may adopt various building-related codes (construction, building, electrical, plumbing, fire, etc.). However, code compliance for school-related construction is guided by the school building code described in Section 2-3.12 of the Illinois School Code (105 ILCS 5/2-3.12) which is referred to as the “Health/Life Safety Code for Public Schools”. Section 2-3.12 provides that the Health/Life Safety Code “shall be the governing code for public schools” subject to certain limitations relating to fire inspections and safety checks (105 ILCS 5/2-3.12(e) and (f)). Generally, this means that, school construction is not subject to local building codes. Instead, the school’s Regional Office of Education serves a major role in school construction activities including inspecting building plans and specifications (105 ILCS 5/3-14.20) as well as inspecting schools (105 ILCS 5/3-14.21). The Regional Superintendent ensures compliance with the Health/Life Safety Code (105 ILCS 5/2-3.12(g)).

In this case, the court rejected the school district’s argument that it had to comply only with the Health/Life Safety Code and not with the municipality’s regulations on zoning and storm water management. The applicability of the Health/Life Safety Code in this instance was not in question. Rather, the court framed the question to be whether the school’s construction of the replacement bleachers also needed to comply with the zoning and storm water management regulations.

After reviewing statutory authority and purposes for zoning and storm water type regulations, the ruling in Gurba cited the School Code’s grant of authority to school boards to “seek zoning changes, variations, or special uses for property held or controlled by the school district” (105 ILCS 5/10-22.13a). The court reasoned that the inclusion of that authorization meant the school actions were subject to local zoning regulations.

The court noted its previous ruling that actions of local governments were subject to zoning regulations, but that the application of such zoning regulations was not unlimited. Wilmette Park District v Village of Wilmette, 112 Ill.2d 6 (1986). In Wilmette Park District, the court ruled that the park district needed to comply with the Village’s zoning requirements in seeking a special use permit to install lights on park district property.

The Wilmette Park District court cautioned that the village’s zoning regulations could not be administered in an unreasonable, arbitrary, or discriminatory manner so as to deny a special use permit or to otherwise abuse its zoning power to thwart or frustrate the unit of government’s statutory duties. To do so would subject the village’s actions to further judicial review.

Units of government enacting zoning, building and property-related codes and regulations must ensure reasonable, fair and impartial application of those regulations. Similarly, other units of government seeking action subject to those same codes and regulations should understand the broad authority and deference granted to those codes and regulations.