Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upholds Invalidation of Schuylkill Township Sprinkler Ordinance

December 2010Newsletters In the Zone

Schuylkill Township v. Pennsylvania Builders Association, 2010 WL 4074488 (Pa. Commw. October 19, 2010).

Schuylkill Township in Chester County adopted Ordinance 2005-01, requiring sprinklers in all new structures or dwellings, including basements, additions and structural alterations. Because the Ordinance required standards beyond the minimum requirements of the Uniform Construction Code (UCC), the Pennsylvania Builders Association challenged the Ordinance.

Section 301 of the Pennsylvania Construction Code Act grants the Department of Labor and Industry the authority to promulgate uniform statewide construction standards, which the Department did by adopting the UCC. At the Department of Labor and Industry hearing, the township argued that local conditions or circumstances warranted the Ordinance’s sprinkler mandate and thus justified an exception to the UCC. Specifically, the township argued the Ordinance was warranted due to population growth, which places a strain on its volunteer fire department, as mountainous topography and traffic congestion delay firefighter response time, and to modern construction, which utilizes rapidly burning wooden trusses. The Department determined that none of the township’s evidence was atypical, and therefore the township failed to establish clear and convincing local climatic, geologic, topographic or public health and safety circumstances and conditions in the township to justify the enactment of the Ordinance or to justify an exception to the general rule of uniformity set forth in the UCC.

The township appealed to the trial court, which upheld the Department’s decision to strike down the Ordinance. The township then appealed to the Commonwealth Court, which affirmed the trial court.

On appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the court first noted that substantial deference to an agency’s interpretation of a statute is given to the agency charged with implementing and enforcing it, such as the Department in the present case, which is charged with enforcing the UCC. The court then noted the concepts of uniformity and public health are underlying principles of the UCC, and only the conditions of the municipalities of Marcus Hook and Carroll Valley Borough have proven to exemplify the local circumstances justifying a UCC exception to require sprinklers. Specifically, Marcus Hook is a municipality of 1.1 square miles with the world’s largest propane storage tank underlying it and oil pipelines passing through it. Carroll Valley Borough is carved into the side of a mountain, has many impassable roads, no public water supply, no fire hydrants and no volunteer fire department. After reviewing the two examples of Marcus Hook and Carroll Valley Borough, the court determined the Department was correct to require Schuylkill Township to show that conditions there were so different from the statewide norm that the uniform standards were not appropriate to use in the township. The township, however, failed to show the same potential for risk as Marcus Hook and Carroll Valley.

The court struck down the township’s argument that the UCC is merely intended to set a floor, which municipalities may surpass when local conditions warrant it, and emphasized that, in adopting the UCC, the Legislature intended for uniformity to be the standard, not the exception. Thus the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the Commonwealth Court’s decision to invalidate Schuylkill Township’s Ordinance requiring sprinklers beyond the requirements of the UCC.

For more information, please contact Kimberly A. Freimuth at 215.918.3627 or [email protected].