Commercial Zoning

Illinois Court: Municipal Zoning and Stormwater Laws Apply to School District’s Construction Project

Much of land use law involves questions over the breadth of local government powers.

Today, we’re looking at a spat between two units of local government: a municipality and a school board.  The decision in Gurba v. Community High School District No. 155, 2014 Ill. App. 2d 140098 (September 3, 2014)  from Illinois addresses the reach of a City’s zoning laws to a football stadium project undertaken by the local school board.  We see alot of government versus the private property owner.  But who wins between units of government?

It’s the pulpit versus the pencil.  Ding!


A School Board decided to rearrange the bleachers in a high school football stadium to “improve traffic flow inside the stadium”.  The School Board “did not proceed under the City’s zoning code or notify the City”.

While the bleacher project was underway, the City objected to the project, maintaining that the project required a special-use permit, a stormwater permit and zoning variances from the City.  The School Board disagreed and “did not change the project to comply with the City’s zoning restrictions”.  The City issued a stop work order against the School Board.
The Lawsuit 
In the meantime, neighboring landowners sued the School District and School Board “seeking to privately enforce the City’s zoning and stormwater ordinances”.  In turn, the School Board brought a third-party complaint against the City “seeking a declaration that the project was not subject to the City’s zoning or stormwater ordinances.”
The trial court entered judgment finding that the project is subject to the City’s zoning and stormwater ordinances, and the School Board appealed.
The Appellate Opinion
The City wins, and zoning and stormwater ordinances apply to the School Board’s project.  
Referring to the case as presenting “an issue of first impression, namely, whether local school boards and districts are subject to the land-use and zoning regime of the municipality in which they reside”, the appellate court affirms the trial court using the following reasoning:  

(1) A school district’s constitutional mandate to provide for education does not preempt or otherwise preclude the enforcement of local government ordinances.  Yes, a local government may not “enact ordinances that infringe upon the realm of public education, such as by changing local graduation requirements or some other action that would affect the content or substance of the public education being offered ….”  Stormwater and zoning ordinances, as “land-use regulations”, “have no inherent impact upon the substance of public education. 

(2) School districts and municipalities are distinct, constitutionally speaking.  Municipalities are “home-rule units”, which cannot be said of school districts, and “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”. 

(3) The School Board’s own code “suggests that the local school board must apply for a zoning change variance, or special use rather than exercise zoning powers itself.”  The canons of statutory construction — expressio unius est exclusio alterius — lead to the holding that the School Board and its project are subject to the City’s zoning and stormwater ordinances.  

“Round one goes to the local government.”   

Mike Thelen practices in Womble, Carlyle’s Real Estate Litigation and Land Use practice group. He regularly represents a wide variety of clients, from local governments to businesses, in land use and land development matters in both state and federal venues throughout North Carolina.

Follow the North Carolina Land Use Litigator on Twitter at @nclanduselaw and “like” us on Facebook here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s