Law inspired by Crystal Lake South bleacher debacle clearing final hurdle

CRYSTAL LAKE – Legislation that aims to prevent the Crystal Lake South High School bleacher controversy from happening elsewhere is one vote shy of heading to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 2186, drafted by state Sen. Pam Althoff, R-McHenry, amends the state school code to explicitly state school districts are subject to applicable local government zoning ordinances. Crystal Lake-based Community High School District 155 unsuccessfully argued in a lengthy court battle that the city’s zoning rules didn’t apply when it built new and larger bleachers in 2013 at a cost of $1.18 million.

The bill cleared the Senate in April, and passed the House on Wednesday, without any opposing votes. But it is headed back to the Senate for a concurrence vote to approve a House amendment that clarifies protections to school districts.

“[The bill] codifies what the court’s decision resulted in, and more importantly, it clarifies a really gray area in the school code as to who is responsible for school construction and ancillary developments on school property,” Althoff said.

A neighbor and McHenry County State’s Attorney Lou Bianchi, who owns an adjoining property, sued District 155 as construction progressed, alleging the board did not go through the city zoning process to build west-side bleachers that were too large and too close to their property line.

District 155 argued that municipal zoning codes do not apply to school districts. The neighbors and the city of Crystal Lake – which was later added to the lawsuit as a counter-defendant – argued they do, and that the bleachers violate the city’s rules.

A McHenry County judge sided with the neighbors and the city, and his ruling was upheld by an appellate court. District 155 took the matter to the Illinois Supreme Court, which ruled in the neighbors’ favor.

Senate Bill 2186 does not allow local zoning ordinances to either regulate educational activities or interfere with a school’s statutory duties – for example, a city could not forbid a high school from building a garage for a shop class because the area is not zoned for business. The House amendment also requires local governments to streamline a school’s zoning application process and reduce costs and fees.

Clarifying the law is important to prevent the problem from happening elsewhere, said state Rep. Mike Tryon, R-Crystal Lake, who carried the bill in the House.

“Taxpayers were on the hook for both sides of the lawsuit, and we wanted to make sure this type of fiasco never happens again,” Tryon said.

District 155 agreed to pay the city $260,000 in fines to cover what Crystal Lake spent fighting in court – the city could have levied a fine of between $500,000 and $5.5 million for violating zoning laws. The district also agreed to pay $273,000 to help cover the legal costs of the neighbors.

A compromise plan keeps the west bleachers in place, but smaller. The home bleachers have since returned to the east side, and are undergoing expansion that should be ready by August.

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