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Crystal Lake: District should do right by going through city process

Published: Friday, Aug. 30, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Aug. 30, 2013 8:51 a.m. CDT

“Disappointed” – the word that best describes the sinking feeling the Crystal Lake City Council had when we learned of District 155’s actions in what, someday, might be referred to as the great bleacher debacle.

We believe that District 155 is among the best school systems in the state, and we are thankful for the district’s contributions to the community.

That’s why its actions are so disappointing.

District 155’s decision to move forward with the construction of the bleachers at Crystal Lake South without warning was a deviation from a 50-year tradition of cooperation and collaboration between the district and city. In the process, the district violated Crystal Lake’s ordinances and impacted property values without affording neighbors even the most basic level of due process. With actions so out of character, the immediate question is why? Why would the district harm neighbors without notice and jeopardize a long-standing relationship with the city?

No matter what the district might say, the most plausible theory is that the district had no desire to go through the city’s process because it knew the project could not meet city standards. If it had asked for approval from the city as it had 26 times in the past 25 years, it might have been told “no,” and that was an answer it could not live with.

So the district followed the ask-for-forgiveness-rather-than-permission approach and worked hastily.

Perhaps it believed that the neighbors would not have the will to challenge it. Perhaps it believed the city would turn a deaf ear to the neighbors. Either way, it was wrong, and now there is a lawsuit with taxpayer-supported lawyers on both sides. Sadly, rather than admitting that it made a mistake and trying to fix it, the district is digging in.

Through its lawyers, the district would have taxpayers believe that the legal picture is “murky” and that the school code “trumps” local zoning ordinances. The Illinois Attorney General and the Illinois Supreme Court would beg to differ.

The attorney general publicly has confirmed that school districts in Illinois are subject to local zoning ordinances. The school code expressly authorizes districts to apply for zoning variations, which raises the question of why that authorization is necessary if schools are not required to seek such approvals. No, the legal picture is not nearly as murky as the district would have taxpayers believe. The weakness of its position is confirmed by the district’s actions over the past 50 years. District lawyers may claim that the 26 times that they sought permits or approvals in the past 25 years were somehow different. Perhaps, but only because this is the biggest intrusion on neighbors’ rights in the history of the district.

Some say the neighbors are in the minority and they should keep quiet because they came to the nuisance. Unfortunately, that position is not factually true because the neighbors did not move next to that stadium. The position is also inconsistent with how we behave in a democratic society. Democracy is not simply majority rules. It is majority rules with protections for minority rights because our founders were worried about situations like this one.

District 155 history teachers will confirm that the founders’ fears were of the “tyranny of the majority.” That is why the Bill of Rights promises, among other things, that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of the law.

In this case, the neighbors were not simply denied due process; they were denied any process.

Therefore, it is not fair to ask them to forgo their rights and take one for the team.

So what now? It is beyond question that a lawsuit with taxpayer-supported lawyers on both sides of the issue will cost taxpayers, and that is wrong.

Fortunately, the right thing to do also happens to be most economical: the district should snap out of whatever funk it is operating under and take affirmative steps to model the values that it teaches our children every day. It should immediately vote to follow the city’s rules. It should proceed through the city’s process and let the chips fall where they may. Lawsuit over, problem solved.

These are the rules that everyone else in Crystal Lake is required to follow, and the rules that the district has followed for the last half century.

Neither the neighbors who filed the lawsuit nor the city are asking for more.

• Aaron Shepley is mayor of Crystal Lake.

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