Gov. Rauner signs law inspired by CL South bleacher debacle

CRYSTAL LAKE – State law now explicitly states that school districts are subject to local zoning, courtesy of a bill inspired by the Crystal Lake South High School bleacher controversy.

Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday signed Senate Bill 2186 into law, which mandates that school districts must adhere to local zoning ordinances if they wish to build or expand. Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155 unsuccessfully argued in a lengthy court battle that the city's zoning rules didn't apply when it built new and larger bleachers in 2013 at a cost of $1.18 million.

The law codifies the 2015 ruling by the Illinois Supreme Court that sided with neighbors who took the school district to court, said state Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry,

“This law echoes what the court already decided. But most importantly, it clarifies a gray area in the school code and lays down a clear path for future construction and developments,” Althoff said in a statement.

A neighbor and McHenry County State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi, who owns an adjoining property, sued District 155 as construction progressed, alleging the board did not go through the city zoning process to build west-side bleachers that were too large and too close to their property line.

District 155 argued that municipal zoning codes do not apply to school districts. The neighbors and the city of Crystal Lake – which was later added to the lawsuit as a counter-defendant – argued they do, and that the bleachers violate the city’s rules. The courts consistently sided with the plaintiffs.

The new law does not allow local zoning ordinances to either regulate educational activities or interfere with a school’s statutory duties – for example, a city could not forbid a high school from building a garage for a shop class because the area is not zoned for business. The House amendment also requires local governments to streamline a school’s zoning application process and reduce costs and fees.

District 155 agreed to pay the city $260,000 in fines to cover what Crystal Lake spent fighting in court – the city could have levied a fine of between $500,000 and $5.5 million for violating zoning laws. The district also agreed to pay $273,000 to help cover the legal costs of the neighbors.

A compromise plan kept the west bleachers in place, but smaller. The home bleachers have since returned to the east side and expanded.

State Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, carried the bill in the House. He said the new law will spare other cities from similar legal headaches that the taxpayers ended up financing.