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Court approves Wilkinsburg annexation petition, sending the matter to Pittsburgh City Council

Wilkinsburg annexation_protesters_kk.jpg
Kiley Koscinski
90.5 WESA
Demonstrators hold signs in protest of the attempt to annex Wilkinsburg into the City of Pittsburgh. Others hold signs in support of allowing Wilkinsburg residents to vote.

The effort by a nonprofit to annex Wilkinsburg into the City of Pittsburgh scored two victories Tuesday: An endorsement by the Allegheny County Chief Executive, and a court ruling to push the process forward.

Judge Joseph James ruled Tuesday afternoon that the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation collected enough signatures — the law requires 5% of registered Wilkinsburg voters — and has ordered Pittsburgh City Council to consider the matter.

Council has 90 days to vote to consent to or disapprove of the annexation. If councilors vote against the annexation, the process ends. If they vote to consent, the matter returns to court, where a referendum date will be set. Then, Wilkinsburg voters will weigh in.

It’s a tight timeline for the Wilkinsburg CDC, which hopes to have the referendum appear on the primary ballot this May.

The effort also received a high-profile endorsement Tuesday from Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. At a press conference with the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation and supporters, Fitzgerald said the annexation would drive development in Wilkinsburg and keep residents from leaving the borough.

“We’ve seen a population loss that has actually double the loss of what’s happened in the City of Pittsburgh. We’ve seen over 200 businesses leave,” Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald also seemed to speak in favor of consolidating more of Allegheny County’s 130 municipalities.

“Many of our 130 municipalities have lost so much investment, so much of their tax base and so much of the new investment that comes in to make municipalities and make communities viable,” he said.

A group of anti-annexation protesters attended Tuesday’s press conference. They called the annexation a land grab that would drive gentrification and harm the community. At times, the protesters shouted over the speakers, calling some Wilkinsburg residents speaking in favor of the annexation “traitors.”

Renee Haynes-Johnson is a longtime resident of the borough and member of Wilkinsburg Future, a coalition of Wilkinsburg residents against the annexation. She said while the borough does suffer from blighted properties, she argues that it’s not in distress.

“We are no longer the community we were in the 1990s,” she said. “We know how to improve the business corridor in our community. We were hoping that the WCDC would live up to its agreement with the borough to do that, and it has failed us.”

Haynes-Johnson said the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation should be putting its efforts toward bringing vacant residences to probate and allowing residents to buy and move into them.

Kate Luxemburg, another resident of the borough and member of Wilkinsburg Future. She argues the borough should fix its own problems.

“We don’t need the [Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh],” Luxemburg told WESA, arguing that redevelopment money for the borough could get lost among projects in the city’s East End neighborhoods. “Pittsburgh has a huge number of abandoned properties.”

Many protesters also expressed distrust towards the nonprofit driving the annexation attempt. Haynes-Johnson called for independent studies about how the merger would affect school districts, abandoned properties and other issues instead of relying on the studies commissioned by the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation.

In court, Luxemburg filed the sole objection to the petitions. She testified that many of the signatures were collected in higher-income neighborhoods and argued residents in lower-income neighborhoods are strongly against an annexation. She also took issue with a paid solicitor collecting signatures on behalf of the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation.

Luxemburg’s objection was overruled by Judge Joseph James Tuesday.

The future of the effort in Pittsburgh City Council is uncertain.

Five members of Pittsburgh’s City Council would need to approve the annexation in the next phase of the process for it to continue. So far, only two councilors, Anthony Coghill and Corey O’Connor, have publicly endorsed it.

Councilors Ricky Burgess and Theresa Kail-Smith have spoken out in opposition to the annexation. Councilors Erika Strassburger, Bobby Wilson and Deb Gross have called for more information.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.
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