Cal U. appeals liquor issue to county court

January 13, 2014
The exterior of the California University of Pennsylvania convocation center

Attorneys for California University of Pennsylvania claim the borough is imposing an illegal tax on events scheduled at the school’s convocation center and asked Washington County Court to “strike, reverse or reform” an ordinance that calls for special fees associated with events at which liquor is served.

The convocation center lies within an area zoned “institutional.” According to the pleadings, the center hosts a wide variety of university-related and public functions, including interscholastic athletic events.

In August 2011, the university’s food vendor, AVI, submitted to the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board an application for a public venue or performing arts facility restaurant liquor license. The university also advised the borough of this application in a letter dated Sept. 2, 2011.

The LCB approved the application and issued a public-venue liquor license for the convocation center the same month.

The borough objected to the sale of liquor at the convocation center because it lies within an area zoned “institutional,” which makes no provision for liquor licenses.

According to the borough, AVI could not “legally operate the liquor license under the present zoning ordinance (or) zoning district,” and the municipality demanded that AVI or the university submit an application to amend the zoning ordinance.

The university disagreed with this position, but it submitted the application anyway. The borough responded by imposing nine requirements, such as the school paying the municipality fees of as much as $3,750 for each convocation center convention or event, excluding honor convocations, lectures, sporting events or similar gatherings.

California Zoning Hearing Board scheduled proceedings on the issue that began in December 2012 and continued through September 2013, during which the university asked that the borough repeal the specific ordinance. It maintains that the fees imposed apply only to conventions or events at which alcohol is served, but that the borough brought up possible costs of deploying its police force at other events.

Attorneys for the college claim only two events would have triggered the fees imposed by the ordinance: a Kenny Rogers concert April 12, 2012, for which 1,873 tickets were sold, and a Bob Dylan concert April 13, 2013, for which 2,388 tickets were sold. The school said a boxing match in May 2013 at the convocation center was attended by fewer than 500 people, and the university questioned if this event should have been subject to a fee.

At the concerts, the borough provided some of its five, full-time police officers and seven or eight part-timers to primarily perform traffic-control duties while the university deployed its own larger security force. The university contends this is consistent with past practices.

The university does not dispute that it is willing to reimburse the borough for its fees and costs during such events, and listed the amounts associated with the Kenny Rogers concert at $291; Bob Dylan concert, $903; and zero for the boxing match.

The ordinance, however, would have imposed on the university a $1,500 fee for each concert, and $750 for the boxing match.

The borough maintained the largest university-related strain on its resources was commencement, which took place May 18 at the convocation center and cost the borough $1,096 to provide police. “Yet, despite this cost, the borough did not require the university to pay any reimbursement” because no liquor was served at graduation, and therefore it was not included in the terms of the special ordinance.

California Zoning Hearing Board made a decision Dec. 9 that the university’s Pittsburgh lawyers, Manning J. O’Connor II and Laura E. Caravello, called “arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion and contrary to both law and the facts.”

They claim the state Liquor Code pre-empts the ordinance and that the local law is not “liquor neutral in intent and application,” and that the fees either are not related to the borough’s actual costs or are not reasonable.

The court has not set a hearing date.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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