State Sen. Pamela Althoff proposes bill to solidify city zoning authority over school districts

CRYSTAL LAKE – State Sen. Pamela Althoff has introduced legislation to prevent disputes over zoning authority between school districts and municipalities in hopes of avoiding situations similar to the court battle between District 155 and Crystal Lake.

Althoff, R-McHenry, wants to solidify city zoning authority over school districts as her bill states a “a school district is subject to and its school board must comply with any valid local government zoning ordinance or resolution that applies where the pertinent part of the school district is located.”

Her legislation has already passed through the education committee with unanimous bipartisan support on a 13-0 vote and it could be voted on in the full Senate on Tuesday.

Althoff said after Community High School District 155 and Crystal Lake became embroiled in a court battle over the legality of the $1.1 million bleacher expansion at the Crystal Lake South High School stadium, she saw examples of similar disputes had been popping up throughout the state in recent years.

She said she believes the school code as written could cause confusion because it was drafted at a time when most schools were nothing more than a collection of classrooms, a gym and playground instead of the campus-like facilities that exist today.

“It was written intentionally to be a little gray so communities could have flexibility on how they wanted to work with school districts, but that’s when life was simpler,” Althoff said of the current law. “Now some schools want to build wind turbines to reduce energy costs. We never anticipated that when school code was written and revised.”

With property owners in mind, Althoff said she believed it was best to reaffirm city zoning authority over school districts as municipalities are where most residents look when it comes to public hearings and what the community should look like.

“That is the entity most people would expect to have oversight over potential construction,” she said. “That unit of government is much more familiar with zoning ordinances.”

Stakeholders such as the Illinois State Board of Education and associations for regional superintendents have been part of the discussion, Althoff said, and have expressed one chief concern.

School officials are concerned the time needed to send construction projects through city zoning processes could take too long and result in work failing to get done during the short summer construction season, Althoff said. She said she shared the concern and would work to adjust the bill to satisfy all parties as much as possible.

Robert Swain, attorney for District 155, said he is concerned about the legislation and believes it could take too much control from schools.

“I don’t think we will know how it might affect the case with the city until the bill is in its final form,” Swain said. “As to the bill itself, I think we’re concerned that it removes decision-making authority away from schools and gives it to municipalities on matters of property used for school purposes.”

District 155 is appealing a judge’s ruling that the city has zoning authority. A ruling is expected by June 15 and the next court date is March 17.

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