McCaleb: D-155 in the wrong on bleacher issue

Published: Sunday, Aug. 11, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

CRYSTAL LAKE – There’s an old cliché that it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

That’s the first thing that came to mind when I learned about the dispute between the city of Crystal Lake along with some of its residents and School District 155 over construction being done on Crystal Lake South High School’s football stadium.

The school tore down its old bleachers and press box this summer, and moved the home bleachers from the east side of the football stadium to the west side.

The west side of the stadium backs into the Amberwood Drive neighborhood, where the new bleachers now tower over several homes.

Residents have complained to the city about the height of the bleachers and the fact that they were moved too close to their backyard property line. They worry that the changes will significantly reduce their property values.

Residents also are upset that the school did not warn them this was coming. They say they didn’t realize the size and scope of the project until the new bleachers began to rise high above their homes.

City of Crystal Lake officials also say that the school district did not come to them about this project, even though several zoning variances were needed and the district had come to the city dozens of times in the past about new projects.

According to the city, the new stadium is in violation of three city zoning codes:

• The back of the bleachers sit just 41 feet from homeowner’s property when it should be 50 feet or more.

• The new bleachers are greater than 600 square feet, which requires a zoning variance under city code. The district neither received nor sought such a variance.

• The press box and the top of the bleachers are too tall, and the district needs a height variance from the city, which it also did not seek or receive.

I live just a couple of blocks from the high school, and when I stopped by on Friday, I could see why Amberwood Drive residents aren’t happy. The new bleachers dominate the landscape, and butt up right against a number of their backyards.

The school district maintains that it doesn’t need the city’s permission for its construction projects. It says it needs the approval of only the Regional Office of Education. The city disagrees, and has threatened to file suit.

Taxpayers certainly don’t want a legal dispute between one public body and another. We’re the ones who get stuck with the bill when that happens.

But I also see the city’s point of view here. It needs to defend the best interests of its residents and protect the integrity of its zoning requirements.

If the district wanted to build a huge chicken coop where the bleachers now stand, would the neighbors and city have no recourse?

Unfortunately, the law seems murky on this issue. Our reporters have received conflicting information, with many sources saying it’s a gray area in Illinois code.

Legalities aside, the right thing for the school district to do would have been to go to the residents and the city with its plans so the project could be properly vetted.

Now the school district wants to meet with residents on Monday, after the stadium is all but complete.

That seems too little, too late to me.

But I guess in the school district’s mind, it’s better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

• Dan McCaleb of Crystal Lake is group editor of Shaw Media’s suburban publications, which include the Northwest Herald. He can be reached at 815-526-4603, or by email at dmccaleb@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Dan_McCaleb.

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