CRYSTAL LAKE – A dispute between District 155 and the city of Crystal Lake over football stadium renovations at Crystal Lake South High School could end up in court.
Mayor Aaron Shepley told the Northwest Herald on Thursday the district’s unwillingness to meet city zoning requirements leaves the city with two options: ignore neighbors who have complained about the proximity of the renovation to their property and turn a blind eye to city zoning ordinances or file a lawsuit against the district.
“I don’t think we have any intention of turning a blind eye,” Shepley said.
Shepley said the football stadium is in violation of three zoning requirements. First, a structure must be 50 feet from the property line of neighboring residences, and the bleachers of the stadium are currently 41 feet from the property line. Second, a zoning variation is required when building a structure greater than 600 square feet. Third, the press box and the top of the bleachers are too high, and the district would need to get a height variance from the city. The district also doesn’t have the required stormwater permit, Shepley said.
The city has sent the district a stop-work order, which the district has ignored, Shepley said.
Going to court with the district is not an ideal situation and one he would rather avoid, Shepley said, as taxpayers would bear the costs of the legal fees on both sides of the lawsuit. But if the district is adamant in bypassing city zoning ordinances, there might not be another option, he said.
“[Going to court] is very undesirable, but the better alternative to ignoring our ordinances,” Shepley said. “If these guys were developers, without hesitation the lawsuit would have been filed already.”
District 155 spokesman Jeff Puma said the district does not need to get zoning approval from the city, and needs approval only from the Regional Office of Education, which it has received.
“We do have the proper zoning permits from the regional superintendent of schools,” Puma said. “That’s what is required under the Illinois school code. The code is what governs construction on school grounds.”
A 2011 decision rendered by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office said “public school districts are subject to municipal and county zoning ordinances, except to the extent that compliance with local zoning would frustrate a school district’s statutory objectives.”
But in a letter to city officials, district attorney Dean Krone cited multiple court decisions in support of the high school. Krone outlined four areas of protection, noting the state has authority over public schools, municipalities cannot enforce zoning restrictions on state property and cities cannot regulate areas of statewide concern.
Puma said the bleachers had to be built for safety concerns. The old bleachers were not compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act regulations, and the fire department said the stadium needed a higher seating capacity, Puma said.
“The public schools of Illinois, although operated at the local level through a board of education, are considered units of the state,” Krone wrote. “Because a local governmental body does not have the authority to impose its ordinances on state property, it may not control school district property.”
The district also did not receive a stop-work order from the city, Puma said.
“We followed Open Meetings Act protocol,” Puma said. “We publicized our meeting minutes on our website. We talked with the Northwest Herald about the project. It was not a secret. We were trying to be as open as possible.
“An open dialogue is taking place, and we’re continuing to try and work with [the city].”
School representatives are expected to meet with affected residents Monday.
This is the first time in the past 26 years the district is claiming it is free to ignore city zoning ordinances, Shepley said. In the past, when schools have wanted electronic signs that are typically outlawed inside city limits, the district has met with the city to get the request approved, he said.
“This action is completely out of character for them, and that makes it all the more curious and disappointing,” Shepley said.
Kimberly Maselbas lives on Amberwood Drive and is one of the neighbors affected by the stadium construction. She said work began on the stadium when school let out for the summer, and she was never notified by the district that the renovations were set to take place.
“We literally woke up one morning to metal being crunched and bulldozers and the beeping trucks,” she said. “We’re used to living behind the school. It’s an issue of the safety and the disregard of any city rules or laws.”