State's Attorney Bianchi suing Crystal Lake schools over bleachers
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As state's attorney for McHenry County, Louis Bianchi is its top criminal prosecutor. But he has stepped into a uniquely different legal role: Plaintiff in a lawsuit involving a neighborhood dispute over new bleachers at Crystal Lake South High School.
Bianchi, his wife, Jean, and another resident near the high school have sued Community Unit District 155 to stop the bleacher project, which would result in larger and what they call more intrusive bleachers in their nearby neighborhood.
Bianchi, who acknowledged he does not live in the home on Amberwood Drive and bought it as an investment, said he had no choice but to intervene when the "huge monstrosity" began to take shape.
"No one knew (the bleachers) would be that big," he said.
Asked about being McHenry County's chief prosecutor and initiating action in a civil matter, Bianchi said: "I don't have any less rights because I am a private citizen. It has an impact on our neighbors. I felt an obligation to go forward. Counties, cities -- everyone's required to go through the process."
The project began in June. It started with the tearing down of visitors bleachers on the field's west side, replacing them with a larger bleacher area to be used by the home crowd.
The Bianchis and resident Jeff Gurba, residents of the 1100 block of Amberwood Drive, alleged the school district failed to adhere to zoning laws and that the project presented a flooding risk. They also cite a quality-of-life issue, arguing the new bleachers tower over their backyards and are just 46 feet from their rear yard lot lines.
A stop-work order was issued by the city of Crystal Lake earlier this week on the $1.2 million bleacher expansion, but a McHenry County judge on Wednesday denied an order sought by Bianchi and residents to stop the project.
In denying the temporary restraining order, Judge Thomas Meyer said: "I'm sympathetic, but the bottom line is it has to be irreparable harm to enter a TRO," Meyer said. "If they (the school district) decide to ignore the city's (stop) work order, they do so at their own peril. If they complete (the project), it's at their own peril."
Normally, when a project is proposed, it must go before a municipality's plan commission for a series of public hearings. Also, property owners within a certain distance of the project are notified via mail.
District 155 attorney Robert Swaim argued the school board held public meetings on the project earlier this year and that the McHenry County regional school superintendent has ultimate authority to approve the plan.
"The real heart of this is whether the city or regional superintendent has permitting authority over the campus," Swaim said. "One of our concerns and arguments is they waited two months to file this (lawsuit). This is in their own backyard."
But Jean Bianchi said after Wednesday's hearing that the school district never informed residents of its plans.
"This was a covert operation. It was never open," she said, adding District 155 went to neighbors several years ago when it erected a new soccer field. "We're just standing up for the right thing to do."
Michael Burney, an attorney for the Bianchis and Gurba, said the old bleacher section was about 40 feet long and 26 feet tall. The new bleachers are 100 feet long and 48 feet tall. Stadium capacity will increase from 2,400 people to about 3,800 people.
"These people had no idea in terms of the immensity of this structure," said Tom Burney, another attorney on the case.
School board President Ted Wagner said the district held meetings before the project and had planned a meeting with residents last Monday to discuss possible tree types that could be planted to screen the bleachers. The meeting was canceled after the suit was filed.
"Are (the trees) going to hide it on the first day? No. But give it time," Wagner said. "Solutions are better than lawsuits."
Wagner declined to comment on why a meeting with residents was planned for last Monday instead of June, when the project started.
Another hearing is scheduled for Friday. Representatives from the city of Crystal Lake and the regional superintendent's office are expected as Swaim will argue that the stop work order should not apply to the project.
Swaim and District 155 Superintendent Johnnie Thomas said officials will discuss whether to finish construction after that hearing is completed.
Swaim said the bleachers are about 95 percent complete, and school officials want to finish the project before the first home football game Aug. 30. "School starts Aug. 26. We have about five days of work left," he said.
Wednesday's hearing was slightly delayed after the first judge recused himself from the case because of Louis Bianchi's involvement.
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