Bleacher battle argued in front of appellate court

ELGIN – The legal battle over a $1.18 million bleacher expansion at Crystal Lake South High School continued to the appellate court Thursday where attorneys for Community High School District 155 and Crystal Lake argued that their respective governmental body has authority over the project.

Robert Swain, representing the school district, said McHenry County Judge Michael Chmiel incorrectly ruled the city should have had zoning authority over the bleacher expansion project that occurred in August 2013 and the Illinois Legislature grants school districts that construction authority through the regional superintendent.

Swain told the panel of three justices the General Assembly intended schools to have authority to carry out projects such as the bleacher expansion through the Health/Life Safety Code. He said the code outlines parameters for structure height, proximity to buildings and stormwater management – the same factors city attorneys argued fall under municipal zoning authority – and approval from the regional superintendent was all that was necessary.

"I think it is disingenuous for the city to call it zoning," Swain said in reference to the terms in the Health/Life Safety Code. "Education is quintessentially a matter of state concern."

RELATED: History of the Crystal Lake South bleacher battle

Justices questioned Swain during his argument, asking whether it was accurate to characterize a bleacher expansion as an educational interest of the state or label the expansion a building project rather than a zoning project that has a greater community impact the city should oversee.

City attorney Victor Filippini Jr. presented his case after Swain, saying the state has interest in educational programming and finances when it comes to schools but set up a system for local control and intergovernmental cooperation.

Filippini said the building code Swain said had authority is meant for internal aspects while the municipal zoning laws look at how projects affect neighbors, storm water management and other community concerns.

"It is one of our constitutional principles to encourage [intergovernmental cooperation]," Filippini said.

Justice Mary Schostok questioned Filippini, asking whether the city should have taken advantage of the opportunity to participate in the regional superintendent hearing with the school district to foster that cooperation. Filippini said it would not have made a difference as the regional superintendent would not be able to address zoning concerns.

The three-justice panel could take anywhere from two to six months to render a decision, Swain said. In the meantime, city and school district attorneys said a mutual agreement is in place to hold off on any action or fines until a decision is given, meaning athletic events can take place at the field in August if a ruling is still pending.

The district faced up to $1,000 per day fines for violating city ordinances, though city attorneys have said they would not necessarily pursue that even if the stay on enforcement was lifted.

The lawsuit began in August after the three Crystal Lake residents, all living along Amberwood Drive where the football field is located, complained the $1.18 million bleacher project failed to follow the city zoning process and the district made the structure too large and too close to their property lines.

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