Ruling on Crystal Lake South bleacher expansion lawsuit expected in December

WOODSTOCK – A ruling in the lawsuit involving the city of Crystal Lake and Community High School District 155 will be made next month after a judge listened to oral arguments for an hour and a half Thursday.

Judge Michael Chmiel said McHenry County would likely make history with a landmark decision that could determine how much authority home-rule communities have over school districts. Although he plans to announce his decision in a written opinion Dec. 18, he said he knew it could go through a lengthy appeals process to the state's top courts regardless of his ruling.

"I think we're going to make some laws here in McHenry County," Chmiel said of the importance of the lawsuit. "It's a challenging set of issues. ... The parties should be happy with the representation."

Representing the city, attorney Justin Hansen claimed that District 155 acted improperly by ignoring the city zoning process when it constructed a $1.18 million bleacher expansion at the Crystal Lake South High School football stadium over the summer.

Hansen said there is a distinction between the building code process through the regional superintendent that the district invoked and the zoning process of a municipality. As a home-rule community, Hansen said, the city has authority over projects where neighboring residents are affected.

He added that the Illinois Legislature would have provided a zoning code for school districts as it did with a building code if lawmakers wanted to take the zoning power out of home-rule communities' authority.

"There's a line that they blur," Hansen said of the district's argument. "There is a clear distinction between zoning and building."

Robert Swain, representing District 155, said the state has plenary power of public education and set up a system with the state board of education, regional superintendents and local school boards to operate the system.

Swain said the school building code regulates issues such as structure height and proximity to adjacent land – complaints at the center of the bleacher issue – and any absence of a specific zoning section does not authorize home-rule municipalities to usurp the authority of the General Assembly.

"It's property being used for school purposes; that's a critical factor," Swain said. "A park district, for example, is not used for school purposes, so zoning ordinances apply."

The lawsuit was initiated in August when three residents – including McHenry County State's Attorney Louis Bianchi and his wife – with property next to the bleachers said the district failed to follow the city zoning process and made the structure too large and too close to their property lines.

The school district later brought the city and regional superintendent into the lawsuit to determine whether the regional superintendent or city had zoning control over district projects.

District officials contend that the permits they received from Regional Schools Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn were enough to move forward with the project, while city officials said the district broke the law in bypassing their zoning process.

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