Appellate court affirms city authority in Crystal Lake South bleacher lawsuit

CRYSTAL LAKE – The bleachers at Crystal Lake South High School will need to receive city approval after an appellate court affirmed Wednesday a McHenry County judge’s ruling that the district must go through Crystal Lake’s zoning process.

In a 42-page opinion, Justice Joseph Birkett rejected the district’s argument that the city’s zoning authority did not apply because public education was a state matter and the legislative gave broad authority to school districts that would override city authority.

“In a conflict between a school district and a home-rule unit, the home-rule unit’s powers should be given precedence,” Birkett wrote. “Requiring conformity to the city’s zoning ordinances will not prevent the board and the district from carrying out their duties to provide public education to the residents of the district.”

Justices Michael Burke and Mary Seminara-Schostok concurred in the opinion and judgment.
The ruling likely brings an end to a yearlong legal battle between the city and District 155 involving a $1.18 million bleacher expansion that was built in the summer of 2013 without zoning or stormwater permits from the city. Neighboring residents who first introduced the lawsuit argued the structure was too close to property lines and too large according to city ordinances.

Crystal Lake Mayor Aaron Shepley said while the district could face daily fines for violating city zoning ordinances, he is hopeful the ruling will prompt district officials to file documents to start the zoning process.

The city could potentially fine the district up to $1,000 a day for violating the ordinance, but city officials have said they would like to avoid that option.

“There is nothing to be joyful about because the district’s reckless conduct has hurt people and needlessly wasted the taxpayers’ precious resources,” Shepley said. “The district has single-handedly forced the taxpayers of this region to pay legal fees for not one but for three sets of attorneys.”

The ruling will not affect Friday’s football home opener at Crystal Lake South, Shepley said, but a separate hearing in front of Judge Michael Chmiel could still force a change.

Residents on Amberwood Drive who started the lawsuit pushed forward seeking relief after Chmiel ruled in December the school district should have gone through city zoning processes.

Chmiel has numerous potential rulings he could give Friday that range from making the district stop activities at the stadium immediately to offering a general guideline for the district to enter the zoning process without impeding any activities.

District attorney Robert Swain said district officials were reviewing the opinion late Wednesday and discussing the issue. He said there would be no comments until the review and discussions were complete.

The district could decide to appeal the case again to the Illinois Supreme Court, although there would be no guarantee of it being heard at that level.

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