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Gurba v. Community High School District No. 155

Court of Appeals of Illinois, Second District

September 3, 2014

COMMUNITY HIGH SCHOOL DISTRICT No. 155, Defendant The Board of Education of Community High School District No. 155, Defendant and Third-Party Plaintiff-Appellant; the City of Crystal Lake, Third-Party Defendant-Appellee; and Leslie Schermerhorn, in Her Official Capacity as McHenry County Regional Superintendent of Schools, Third-Party Defendant-Appellant

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As Corrected.

Appeal from the Circuit Court of McHenry County. No. 13-CH-1319. Honorable Michael J. Chmiel, Judge, Presiding.


The trial court's holding that defendant school district must comply with the zoning ordinances of the city in which the district was situated when the district reconstructed the bleachers at its athletic field was affirmed, notwithstanding the district's contentions that the trial court's decision was an unconstitutional infringement on the powers of the district's school board and the regional superintendent of schools, since land-use decisions have traditionally been left to local municipalities, not school districts, and local school boards and school districts have traditionally been held subject to the zoning regulations of local municipalities.

Michael G. Nerheim, State's Attorney, of Waukegan (Daniel L. Jasica and Carla N. Wyckoff, Assistant State's Attorneys, of counsel), for appellant Leslie Schermerhorn.

Dean W. Krone, Robert E. Swain, Steven M. Richart, and Kerry P. Burnet, all of Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn, LLP, of Arlington Heights, for other appellants.

Victor P. Filippini, Jr., of Filippini Law Firm, LLP, of Glenview, for appellee City of Crystal Lake.

Michael R. Burney, of Schain, Burney, Banks & Kenny, Ltd., of Chicago, and Thomas R. Burney, of Zanck, Coen, Wright & Saladin, P.C., of Crystal Lake, for other appellees.

Brian D. Day and Roger Huebner, both of Illinois Municipal League, of Springfield, amicus curiae.

Laurie A. Reynolds, of University of Illinois College of Law, of Champaign, amicus curiae.

JUSTICE BIRKETT delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Presiding Justice Burke and Justice Schostok concurred in the judgment and opinion.


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[¶1] The plaintiffs here are Jeff Gurba, the Louis A. Bianchi Revocable Trust, and the Jean M. Bianchi Revocable Trust, property owners whose land is adjacent to the Crystal Lake South High School football stadium. The defendants are Community High School District No. 155 (the District), which is responsible for, among other things, the physical plant of Crystal Lake South, and the Board of Education of Community High School District No. 155 (the Board). Plaintiffs objected to the District's decision to build bleachers that

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violated the zoning and stormwater ordinances of the City of Crystal Lake (the City) by being too big, too high, and too close to the property line. The complaint spawned a third-party action filed by the Board against the City and Leslie Schermerhorn, in her capacity as the McHenry County regional superintendent of schools (the Superintendent). In short, the Board decided to reconstruct and relocate the home bleachers, but it did not notify the City or comply with the City's zoning ordinances, under which the Board would have been required to obtain a variance or special-use permit. The trial court held that the Board was subject to the City's zoning and stormwater ordinances, and the Board appeals, contending that the court's ruling represented an unconstitutional infringement on the Board's and the Superintendent's power. We disagree and affirm.


[¶3] The District operates several high schools located within both Lake and McHenry Counties. It serves the municipalities of Bull Valley, Burton's Ridge, Cary, Crystal Lake, Fox River Grove, Lake in the Hills, Lakewood, Oakwood Hills, Prairie Grove, and Ridgefield. In particular, the District operates Crystal Lake South, which is located within the City.

[¶4] The controversy in this case arose from a failed structural inspection of the bleachers and the Board's decision to replace them. As part of the project, the Board decided to switch the home and visiting bleachers, moving the home bleachers to the side of the field that is adjacent to plaintiffs' property. The Board represents that repositioning the bleachers would improve the traffic flow inside the stadium. The Board avers that the bleachers are used for " school purposes[,] such as physical education classes and visitor seating for school events."

[¶5] The Board submitted its plans for the project to the Superintendent, who reviewed the plans and issued a building permit, pursuant to section 3-14.20 of the Illinois School Code (105 ILCS 5/3-14.20 (West 2012)). The Board did not proceed under the City's zoning code or notify the City. The Board avers that the Superintendent was required to provide notice only if the City requested it and that the City never made that request.

[¶6] While the bleacher project was underway, the City objected, maintaining that the project required a special-use permit, a stormwater permit, and zoning variances from the City. Under the City's zoning plan, the high school's campus is located in an R-2 (single-family home) district. The City maintained that its zoning restrictions applied to the project and that the home bleachers were limited to a height of 15 feet, a size of 600 square feet, and a minimum setback of 50 feet from the property line. The Board did not agree and did not change the project to comply with the City's zoning restrictions. The City then issued a stop-work order against the Board.

[¶7] As the City and the Board's controversy was gearing up, plaintiffs sued the District and the Board, seeking to privately enforce the City's zoning and stormwater ordinances. The Board filed a third-party complaint against the City and the Superintendent, seeking a declaration that the project was not subject to the City's zoning or stormwater ordinances.

[¶8] The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment. The trial court determined that the project was subject to the City's zoning and stormwater ordinances,

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and the Board timely appeals.[1]


[¶10] On appeal, the Board argues that it is not subject to the City's zoning or stormwater-management ordinances.[2] The Board roots its contention in the Illinois Constitution of 1970. The Board argues that the constitution declares public education to be a matter of statewide concern and that the legislature, acting under a constitutional grant of plenary power over public education, has enacted a comprehensive scheme to regulate the field and has relegated to municipalities only a limited role. Based on this chain of reasoning, the Board contends that the City's zoning power stops at the boundary of property used for school purposes (and it makes the ancillary argument that the " school purposes" test or analysis is well established in the case law and is applicable to the controversy in this case). We follow the Board's general organization in presenting our opinion (constitutional support, statutory support, other considerations), but we do not fully agree with the contours of the Board's argument, so we set forth our analysis of each issue and then consider any particulars of the Board's contentions that have not been addressed in our analysis.

[¶11] A. Standard of Review

[¶12] We begin with the overarching standard of review. This matter comes before us after the trial court ruled on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Summary judgment is appropriate if the pleadings, depositions, and admissions on file, together with any affidavits, when viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, show that there is no genuine issue of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. 735 ILCS 5/2-1005(c) (West 2012); G.M. Sign, Inc. v. State Farm Fire & Casualty Co., 2014 IL App (2d) 130593, ¶ 15, 385 Ill.Dec. 70, 18 N.E.3d 70. When the parties file cross-motions for summary judgment, they agree that no material factual issues exist and that only questions of law are presented. City of Oakbrook Terrace v. Suburban Bank & Trust Co., 364 Ill.App.3d 506, 510, 845 N.E.2d 1000, 301 Ill.Dec. 135 (2006). (Of course, neither the trial court nor the reviewing court is required to accept the parties' beliefs as to the existence of factual issues, and both courts remain free to determine the existence of a genuine factual issue sufficient to preclude the entry of summary judgment. Id.) We review de novo the trial court's ruling on a motion for summary judgment. G.M. Sign, 2014 IL App (2d) 130593, ¶ 15. Likewise, we review de novo the construction of any statutes or ordinances, as it involves legal questions. Oakbrook Terrace, 364 Ill.App.3d at 510.

[¶13] B. Constitutional Underpinnings

[¶14] The Board begins with some of the pertinent language from the Illinois Constitution regarding public education as well as municipalities' home-rule powers. As this is a good starting point, we will begin our analysis similarly. We keep in mind that, when discussing and interpreting a constitutional provision, we wish to discern the common understanding of those who ratified and gave life to the constitution. Ritzheimer v. Insurance Counselors, Inc.,

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173 Ill.App.3d 953, 958, 527 N.E.2d 1281, 123 Ill.Dec. 506 (1988). This common understanding is best determined by looking at the common meaning of the words used in the provision. Id. Moreover, the rules of statutory interpretation are roughly applicable to interpreting a constitutional provision, and we are to strive to interpret a constitutional provision so as to promote its essential purpose. Id. With these principles in mind, we turn to the constitution's public education provisions animating this dispute.

[¶15] The Illinois Constitution contains an article devoted solely to education. Ill. Const. 1970, art. X. In section 1, article X states, " A fundamental goal of the People of the State is the educational development of all persons to the limits of their capacities." Ill. Const. 1970, art. X, § 1. To that end, the state government is tasked to " provide for an efficient system of high quality public educational institutions and services." Id. The Board points to these provisions, as well as those mandating the state to provide free public education through the secondary-school level and any other free education required by statute. Id. In addition to making these hortatory statements and assigning fiscal responsibility, the constitution created and empowered a State Board of Education to oversee the implementation of public education. Ill. Const. 1970, art. X, § 2. Notably, section 2 provides that " [t]he Board, except as limited by law, may establish goals, determine policies, provide for planning and evaluating education programs and recommend financing." Ill. Const. 1970, art. X, § 2(a).

[¶16] In addition to the article devoted to education, we note (although the Board did not) that, in article VII, the constitution explains the powers of local governments, including local school boards. Specifically, it states that " [t]ownships, school districts, special districts and units, designated by law as units of local government, which exercise limited governmental powers or power in respect to limited governmental subjects shall have only powers granted by law." Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 8. Additionally, the constitution differentiates between municipalities and other, limited, local governmental units: " 'Municipalities' means cities, villages and incorporated towns. 'Units of local government' means counties, municipalities, townships, special districts, and units, designated as units of local government by law, which exercise limited governmental powers or powers in respect to limited governmental subjects, but does not include school districts." Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 1; see also Bremen Community High School District No. 228 v. Cook County Comm'n on Human Rights, 2012 IL App (1st) 112177, ¶ 26 (noting that the Illinois Constitution expressly differentiates school districts from municipalities).

[¶17] Keeping in mind that the Board attempts to characterize the issue in this case as a contest between the powers of the District and the home-rule authority of the City, we note that the constitution expressly addresses the power of home-rule units in section 6 of article VII. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 6. The constitution first defines a home-rule unit, then it expressly empowers home-rule units:

" Except as limited by this Section, a home rule unit may exercise any power and perform any function pertaining to its government and affairs including, but not limited to, the power to regulate for the protection of the public health, safety, morals and welfare; to license; to tax; and to incur debt." Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 6(a).

The constitution also expressly grants the home-rule municipality primacy within its corporate boundaries, at least with respect

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to other home-rule units: " If a home rule county ordinance conflicts with an ordinance of a municipality, the municipal ordinance shall prevail within its jurisdiction." Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 6(c). But while home-rule units are granted broad autonomy under section 6 of article VII, the state may still preempt and occupy a field of the law: " The General Assembly may provide specifically by law for the exclusive exercise by the State of any power or function of a home rule unit ***." Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 6(h). Even so, home-rule units may still " exercise and perform concurrently with the State any power or function of a home rule unit to the extent that the General Assembly by law does not specifically limit the concurrent exercise or specifically declare the State's exercise to be exclusive." Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 6(i). In keeping with the broad powers of home-rule units, the constitution forbids the legislature from interfering with home-rule units' ability to impose certain taxes and special assessments regarding local improvements and special services. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 6(l). Finally, the constitution mandates that the " [p]owers and functions of home rule units shall be construed liberally." Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 6(m).

[¶18] Looking at the various constitutional provisions quoted and paraphrased (as well as all of the remaining provisions) dealing with education, school districts, and home-rule units and their powers, we first conclude that the language is sufficiently clear for our interpretive purposes (while keeping in mind the old saw that the devil is often in the details). See McFatridge v. Madigan, 2013 IL 113676, ¶ 18 (in attempting to implement the drafters' intent, where the language is clear and unambiguous, the court must apply it as written, without resort to outside sources or interpretive tools).

[¶19] The powers of home-rule units and school districts are matters of constitutional dimension, and the strong public policy statement concerning public education suggests that school districts' powers are as important as the powers of home-rule units. There are, however, several provisions that suggest that, in the case of a conflict between a home-rule unit and a school district, there is a slight bias toward the home-rule unit. The first suggestion is the broad and liberal grant of powers to home-rule units. Section 6(a) of article VII grants a home-rule unit powers over its government and affairs, including the power to issue laws to further the public health, safety, morals, and welfare. Of course, the power granted is not limitless; it is limited to the home-rule unit's government and affairs. But the home-rule unit is allowed to exercise its powers concurrently with the state, unless the legislature expressly preempts them, and the powers and functions of the home-rule unit are to be liberally construed. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 6. Perhaps most importantly for our analysis here, home-rule-unit primacy is embodied in the express language of the constitution, which guarantees that, if a county-level home-rule unit's ordinances conflict with those of a municipality-level home-rule unit, the municipality's ordinances will be given effect in the municipality's territory or jurisdiction. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 6(c). This primacy suggests a slight bias in favor of a local, or narrower, unit over a regional, or broader, unit.

[¶20] On the other hand, the constitution is careful to emphasize the limited authority of school districts. Unlike a home-rule unit, the powers of which are subject only to an express preemption by the legislature, a school district's powers are only those bestowed by the legislature. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 8. Again, comparing

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a school district's powers, which are derived statutorily and may not extend beyond the statutory mandates, with a home-rule unit's powers, which derive from the constitution and extend throughout its bailiwick unless expressly statutorily limited, suggests that, in a conflict between a school district and a home-rule unit, the home-rule unit's powers should be given precedence.

[¶21] This principle is further strengthened by the express constitutional recognition that a school district is by definition not a municipality. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VII, § 1. In fact, rather than exalting a school district to a position equal to or greater than that of a municipality, it relegates a school district to the somewhat lesser status of a quasi-municipality, acting for the state as its administrative arm overseeing the establishment and implementation of free schools. See Bremen Community, 2012 IL App (1st) 112177, ¶ 24 (as a quasi-municipality, the ...

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