Summary: We previously reported on and supported the legislative efforts of Senator Pamela Althoff (R–32nd District, McHenry County and Lake County) to get a bill passed in the General Assembly that would amend the School Code to clarify that school district property is subject local zoning authority. Her bill would have codified the Illinois Supreme Court’s decision in the Crystal Lake bleacher case (Gurba v. Community High School District No. 155, 215 IL 118332 (2015)). Senator Althoff’s original bill was later amended through the strong efforts of the Illinois school districts lobby to provide accommodations for schools seeking zoning relief. Unlike Senator Althoff’s original bill, the bill successfully supported by the school districts lobby and other organizations, including the Illinois Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, is a much more complex and ambiguous law. Status: P.A. 99-980 was unanimously passed through both chambers of the General Assembly and signed by Governor Rauner on August 25, 2016, and became effective on that date. Analysis: P.A. 99-890 has a number of provisions that Illinois APA thinks raises the possibility of greater tensions between local zoning authorities and school districts. The language of the bill is strongly tilted toward schools, with provisions that imply local zoning authorities act unfairly toward school zoning petitions. The following are key provisions of P.A. 99-890 that all local zoning authorities need to be aware of:
Prohibits local zoning authorities from regulating educational activities and frustrating school district's statutory duties;
Requires local zoning authorities to change its otherwise applicable zoning process so that school districts are subject to a special, streamlined process;
Demands that local zoning authorities "minimize the administrative burdens involved in the zoning review process" specially for school districts, including the following:
reduce application fees and costs for school districts.
limit the number of times the school district must amend its site plans.
limit the number of copies of site plans and any other documents required to be submitted by the municipality.
expedite the zoning review process to require the local zoning authority to render a decision on the school district's zoning application within 90 days after a “completed application” is submitted.
These requirements may place an undue burden on local zoning authorities to treat school districts more preferentially than any other zoning applicant. They are also not very clearly drafted, which could create confusion and increase the likelihood of disputes between school districts and municipalities. The poorly constructed language of P.A. 99-890 raises a number of questions, including:
What aspects of the zoning process result in regulation of educational activities or otherwise frustrate a school’s statutory duties?
How many site plan amendments are acceptable?
How many copies of plans? Enough for the hearing body and corporate authorities?
What if other development applications are submitted prior to the school district's submittal - must these applications be deferred to make sure the municipality can render a decision on the school district's application within the 90 days? How does that affect due process rights for these other applicants?
Who decides whether an application is complete?
What is the remedy if the local government fails to render the decision in 90 days?
Does P.A. 99-890 alter the legislative nature of zoning, as provided in 65 ILCS 5/11-13- 25, and convert it into an administrative process subject to the Administrative Review Law, 735 ILCS 5/3- 101 et seq.
P.A. 99-890 contains language claiming that it is declarative of existing law, which is a nod to the Supreme Court’s Gurba decision. However, the requirements and conditions of P.A. 99-890 move zoning, as it relates to schools, far afield from the long established regulatory power of local zoning authorities over landowners, with schools now enjoying a favored position in the zoning process.
Many of our questions will have to await answers from the courts, which presents a dilemma for schools, since the law acknowledges the Gurba decision. However, we advise local zoning authorities to strictly follow the clear guidelines of P.A. 99-890, such as following the 90-day decision deadline. We also encourage local zoning authorities to carefully consider how a zoning regulation may affect educational activities, which we think encompasses classroom activities, as opposed to extracurricular events. Finally, keep an open line of communication with your local schools. In many cases, problems are best avoided when the parties communicate frequently.