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Judge dismisses Wilkinsburg annexation petition, rules advocates must follow a different procedure

The Wilkinsburg Borough municipal building.
Rebecca Reese
90.5 WESA
The Wilkinsburg Borough municipal building.

An Allegheny County judge has dismissed the third attempt to annex the Borough of Wilkinsburg into the City of Pittsburgh. Judge Joseph James on Friday dismissed a petition to start the annexation process and said the procedure governing the annexation is invalid.

The ruling effectively throws out the current annexation effort, whose backers hoped to put the matter before Wilkinsburg voters on the Spring 2023 ballot.

Calls to the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation — the group mobilizing support for annexation — were not immediately returned Friday afternoon. The group was following a 1903 annexation law that required Pittsburgh City Council and Wilkinsburg voters to approve the annexation. Pittsburgh voters would not weigh in under the procedure.

But earlier this month, the community development group's executive director, Tracey Evans, said that if James ruled against the annexation effort, her group would consider its options moving forward.

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In a two-page opinion, Judge James wrote that the 119-year-old law was effectively repealed when the legislature amended Pennsylvania’s Constitution in 1968. At the time, lawmakers were supposed to set uniform procedures for annexations, boundary changes and mergers by April 1970, but that didn’t happen.

“Since the Legislature did not enact uniform legislation regarding annexation procedures by April 23, 1970, all annexation after that date must be by initiative, as set forth in Article IX, Section 8” of the state Constitution, James wrote.

Judge James also noted that another merger procedure, set forth in the 1994 Municipal Consolidation or Merger Act, excludes the City of Pittsburgh. That leaves the initiative procedure, which gives voters in both municipalities a say, as the only viable mechanism.

That means the path forward for annexation supporters will require a majority of voters to support the effort in both Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh, a much harder climb than proponents hoped for. The 1903 procedure only required the support of at least five Pittsburgh City Council members in addition to Wilkinsburg voters. Now supporters will have to convince a majority of voters in a city whose population is roughly 20 times that of Wilkinsburg.

Friday’s ruling largely endorses arguments made by attorney Chuck Pascal, who represents a group of Pittsburghers and a Wilkinsburg resident who objected to the petition. During a hearing earlier this month, Pascal argued that the legislature allowed the 1903 law to become invalid in 1970, but also contended that the law was repealed twice. In July, Act 41 invalidated several laws by establishing new rules for municipal boundary changes, building and demolition permits.

Pascal said Friday that he and his clients are "pleased" with the ruling and maintained that before an annexation could proceed "the voices of the people of both the City of Pittsburgh and the Borough of Wilkinsburg deserve to be heard at the
ballot box."

While much of the debate about annexation has taken place within city limits, it's unclear how much support for the effort there is in Wilkinsburg. None of the three attempts to annex the borough have made it to Wilkinsburg voters, but a group of borough residents have maintained fierce opposition to it. And other objectors to the annexation included Wilkinsburg Borough itself and several borough residents.

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.