Pennsylvania Municipalities Must Base Decisions on Evidence, Not Mere Opinion

On January 13,2021, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court (appellate court) in Weis Markets v. Lancaster Township again firmly stated that municipalities cannot act on mere opinion, not supported by substantial evidence, when making municipal decisions. Merely reciting “health, safety, welfare, and public morals” as justification for a decisions without substantial evince does not constitutionally support municipal decisions. The decision has broader implications for municipal decision-making and again reminds that municipalities cannot simply “wing-it” when making decisions.

Weis Markets involved a liquor license transfer in Lancaster Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Applicant, Weis Markets, provided some basic evidence supporting the requested liquor license transfer. [Slip, 3-7]  The Township Supervisors

declined the opportunity to ask questions or extend their time for making a decision….Instead, they made comments expressing general concerns about the number of nearby licensed premises, without tying those concerns to any record evidence…. They then voted unanimously to deny the Transfer. … In its subsequent written adjudication, the Township listed the nearby businesses with liquor licenses and stated a bare conclusion that the Transfer was denied because it would adversely affect the health, welfare, peace, and morals of Township residents. The adjudication did not cite any evidence in the record in support of that conclusion. [Slip, 6-7]

The Commonwealth Court held against the Township because general comments by municipal actors do not constitute evidence to support municipal decision-making—citing to the 2014 Accord Howell v. City of Erie Blighted Prop., 87 A.3d 949, 953 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2014).  [Slip, 11]

Lessons for Municipalities

The Commonwealth Court affirms that municipalities abuse discretion (here under the Liquor Control Act) when they make a decisions unsupported by any evidence. The Commonwealth Court concludes:

Because we find the Township’s discretion is not unfettered, we conclude that in the absence of any supporting evidence to support its determination that the Transfer would have an adverse effect on the Township and its residents, the Township’s adjudication constituted a misapplication of the law and a manifestly unreasonable exercise of judgment, and therefore was an abuse of discretion. [Slip, 16]

Thus, mere opinion or comments by municipal officials do not constitute constitutionally-required evidence and thus cannot support municipal decision-making.