A McHenry County judge Wednesday ruled that Community Unit School District 155 officials broke the law this summer when they failed to get city permission for a $1.2 million bleacher expansion at Crystal Lake South High School.
Several residents, including McHenry County State's Attorney Lou Bianchi, sued the district in August arguing it failed to go through the city of Crystal Lake's approval process before building the expansion, which is now complete.
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The school district maintained the county's Regional Superintendent of Education had authority in this case.
McHenry County Judge Michael Chmiel disagreed.
"I believe the city and the plaintiffs are absolutely on point here," Chmiel said in his ruling, which stopped short of ordering the district to remove or tear down a portion of or all of the bleachers.
Now, District 155 officials must decide whether to appeal the case or to submit the bleacher project, which has already been completed, to the city for approval.
"It's unfortunate they chose to build first and 'ask' for forgiveness later," Crystal Lake Mayor Aaron Shepley said. "I think they should have known better and they did know better."
District 155 officials said they needed time to review Chmiel's ruling.
"We're disappointed with the decision," said District 155 Superintendent Johnie Thomas, echoing the sentiment of Robert Swaim, attorney for the district.
Chmiel's decision was vindication for homeowners Jeff and Kim Gurba, who sued the district along with Bianchi and his wife, who own a rental home on the 1100 block of Amberwood Drive next to the high school property. "Bottom line is we want them (the school district) to just comply with the law. If they did that from the beginning, we wouldn't be here right now," Jeff Gurba said. "They just went ahead with their arrogance."
Kim Gurba said she and her husband bought their home in 1999 and the school district had contacted neighbors on numerous projects in the past, including when it added a new soccer field.
The Gurbas and Bianchis argued the larger, taller bleachers constituted an invasion of privacy, were built too close to the property line and ultimately hurt their property values.
The Gurbas said they didn't want students at the high school to be affected by the lawsuit. So far they have not as a different judge in August denied a temporary restraining order to halt construction and said the district could proceed -- at its own risk.
Shepley said the district's bleacher plan would need variances from city code for its height and closeness to other properties.
"I can live with what the city will allow -- with no special uses and no variances added," Jeff Gurba said. "If they modified (the bleachers), it's steel. It's like an Erector set. They can easily get in there."
Thomas Burney, the attorney representing the Bianchis and Gurbas, said it was significant that Chmiel said there was no previous case law to rely upon when making his decision.
"Maybe the reason is there were no cases is because school districts regularly go through the zoning process," Burney said. "They firmly believe they aren't subject to the zoning restrictions. And that's what this fight has been all about."
The parties are due in court again Jan. 22 to update Chmiel on what, if any, progress has been made.
"The parties have some decisions to make as to what they want to do," said Justin Hansen, attorney for the city of Crystal Lake. "I think in 35 days we'll have answers to that."