A Superior Court judge has ordered the Boston Licensing Board to reconsider a restaurant license application for a proposed Popeyes in Dorchester. The ruling comes after the board rejected the application with prejudice last spring citing community opposition, the unhealthy nature of the fried chicken chain's menu items, and the "saturation" of existing fast-food restaurants in the vicinity.
In a five-page ruling, Justice Robert L. Ullmann vacated the board's denial of a common victualler license for an unopened Popeyes in Dorchester's Codman Square, writing that only one of the board's assertions — that Popeyes has unhealthy menu items — was supported with evidence.
"The record contains no reliable evidence of substantial community opposition to the license, and far more evidence of community support," Ullmann wrote, noting that representatives from mayor’s office of Neighborhood Services and City Councilor Andrea Campbell's office spoke in opposition during a board hearing last April. Only two other people spoke against giving the restaurant a license, while eight people spoke in favor of the license and provided a petition with 51 signatures, according to court document.
"The evidence supporting the finding that the Codman Square neighborhood was 'saturated' with unhealthy restaurants is even weaker than the evidence of significant opposition to the license," Ullmann continued. "Indeed, the record reflects only that there is one McDonald's and one KFC somewhere in the vicinity of the proposed Popeyes location."
Ullmann also noted that the Licensing Board has “broad discretion” in licensing matters and suggested that the agency could rightfully arrive at the same conclusion “based on a fair and reasonable consideration of reliable evidence."
"Of course, the Board has full authority on reconsideration to approve the license," he added.
As of publication, a spokesperson for the mayor's press office, which fields media requests for the Licensing Board, had not responded to WGBH News' request for comment. Meanwhile, Brian Haney, an attorney for the would-be franchisees, is looking forward to a new hearing.
"We're obviously very pleased with the court's conclusion," Haney said in an interview with WGBH News Monday. Haney, who began representing Dorchester Chicken LLC after its application was rejected, noted that it is rare for a court to overturn a local agency’s decision.
“It’s only accomplished when there’s clear evidence that the board did not decide in a fair, judicial and reasonable manner upon the evidence it was presented,” he said. “We think the court reached the right conclusion.”
Haney said he and his client have not heard from the Licensing Board about a new hearing date.
Community stakeholders’ reactions to the news were varied.
“It’s sad, to me,” said Thabiti Brown, head of school at Codman Academy Charter. Brown helped institute a junk food ban on the campus and said he’s determined to make the school’s surrounding community as “fast-food-free” as possible.
“If we’re going to have more food options in the community, I would love for those food choices to be more healthy and low-cost,” he said, noting that Codman Square residents might patronize a fast-food chain for budget-friendly convenience.
Others, like State Rep. Russell Holmes welcomed the news.
“The conversation will continue,” he said. “I think that’s good.”
Holmes pointed to a community divide — healthy food proponents on one side and people who want the chicken chain in Dorchester on the other — and said a new hearing will offer an opportunity for more people to chime in.
“They’ll get to voice their opinions and we’ll see where it all lands,” he added.
Both sides are now preparing to drum up support for a completely new public hearing.