by Brian J. O’Connor (Winter 2016)

The Illinois Supreme Court recently ruled that municipal zoning ordinances apply to a school district’s construction of bleachers on school property in Gurba v. Community High School District No. 155, 2015 IL 118332. This outcome surprised many school administrators and local inspectors who assumed the opposite.
In 2013, the District 155 school board voted to replace the football bleachers at Crystal Lake South High School. The new bleachers were larger and higher than the previous bleachers, and sat close to the school property line. The Regional Superintendent of Schools of McHenry County approved the project and the school district began to build the new bleachers.

The City of Crystal Lake ordered the district to stop the project until it obtained a special-use permit, a storm water management permit and zoning variances. Believing it not to be subject to the City’s zoning authority, the school board continued to build the new bleachers.
Several residents whose homes were adjacent to the new bleachers sued the school district to enforce the City’s zoning ordinances. The question before the court in Gurba was whether the school district needed to comply with municipal zoning and storm water regulations in constructing the new bleachers on school property. The court affirmed both circuit and appellate courts in holding that the school must abide by such municipal regulations.

Typically, 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 Gurba, 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 city’s zoning and storm water management regulations.
After reviewing statutory authority and purposes for zoning and storm water type regulations, the court 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 that school actions were subject to local zoning regulations in addition to the Health/Life Safety Code.

The Illinois Supreme Court has previously held that actions of local governments were subject to zoning regulations, but that the application of such zoning regulations was not unlimited. In Wilmette Park District v Village of Wilmette, 112 Ill.2d 6 (1986), 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.

The Gurba decision may have significant ramifications for school districts. No longer is compliance with the Health/Life Safety Code sufficient; school districts must also comply with applicable municipal zoning, building and property related codes and regulations.