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Wilkinsburg development group resurrects annexation attempt, appeals case to Pa. Supreme Court

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

The group behind a 2022 attempt to annex the borough of Wilkinsburg into the City of Pittsburgh is taking its effort to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation wants to apply a 1903 annexation procedure that would require Pittsburgh City Council and Wilkinsburg voters to approve folding the borough into the city. The process would not include input from Pittsburgh voters.

But an Allegheny County judge ruled last October that the procedure became invalid in the 1960s when the state legislature amended Pennsylvania’s constitution. Commonwealth Court affirmed that decision last month.

Those decisions meant the path forward for annexation proponents could require them to start from scratch by petitioning Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg voters to place a question about annexation on an upcoming ballot. Before it considers that route, however, the Wilkinsburg CDC is taking the matter to the state Supreme Court for its review. The group filed an appeal of Commonwealth Court’s decision Monday, minutes before the deadline to do so.

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In its appeal, the Wilkinsburg CDC argues that the lower court decision ignores a 1994 law that standardized municipal mergers across the state but explicitly excluded first- and second-class cities, namely Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The group contends that the 1994 law reversed the effect of the constitutional amendments, making the 1903 annexation procedure for cities such as Pittsburgh once again relevant.

Lawyers for the Wilkinsburg CDC made similar arguments during hearings in the lower courts last year but were unsuccessful.

The group also pointed to an earlier annexation attempt in 2021 that followed the same 1903 procedure. The petition noted that the effort “proceeded through the Court of Common Pleas to the Pittsburgh City Council. In 2022 the General Assembly tried and failed to expressly repeal it.”

Tracey Evans, the Wilkinsburg CDC's executive director, believes the lower courts got it wrong and that there is still a chance to move forward under the 1903 process. She said her group has worked for years to put this question before Wilkinsburg voters.

"We want to do everything we can for the people who went out three times to collect these signatures," she said.

Objectors have two weeks to respond to the group's appeal.

Chuck Pascal, who represents the group of Wilkinsburg residents who initially sued to stop the annexation effort, said he's sure the Wilkinsburg CDC will fail again when it takes its argument to the Supreme Court.

“Seven judges, one Common Pleas judge and six Commonwealth Court judges have unanimously agreed that the 1903 annexation law has no legal effect … I am confident that the justices of the Supreme Court will come to the same conclusion,” he said.

Pascal also argued that Pittsburgh voters should get a say in the process.

“The Wilkinsburg CDC should use its obviously considerable funds to improve the lives of the people of Wilkinsburg instead of continuing its very expensive legal battle to deprive the voters of the City of Pittsburgh of their right to vote on the future of their city,” he added.

How Pittsburgh weighs in, and whether the city is in favor of making the borough the city’s 91st neighborhood, remains an open question. The Wilkinsburg CDC withdrew its first attempt to annex the borough in 2021 after it was clear that Pittsburgh City Council would not support it.

Some members, including Council President Theresa Kail-Smith, said at the time they felt slighted by a court order that required them to vote on annexation, “with no opportunity for communication with our residents.”

Councilor Ricky Burgess, whose district would likely absorb most or all of Wilkinsburg’s residents, said he wanted to study the impact of the annexation before voting on it. He and other council members collected research about how school districts, public safety and other services could be affected before signaling that he would be supportive of a future annexation effort.

But Burgess isn’t seeking re-election this year and may not be in office by the time an annexation question could come back before City Council.

Khari Mosley, the frontrunner to replace Burgess, on Tuesday said he wouldn’t take a firm stance one way or the other about annexing Wilkinsburg.

“I’m interested in hearing the voices of Wilkinsburg residents,” he said. “We should center the residents of Wilkinsburg in the process.”

When asked if Pittsburgh residents should get a vote on the matter, Mosley said, “Anything that would impact the residents of the city… [voters] should have a say in the process.”

But Mosley stressed that a conversation about merging municipalities throughout Allegheny County is necessary, too. The county has 130 individual municipalities that often share services such as police and fire departments.

“I think that [as] we talk about regional consolidation, I think it’s bigger than just the Borough of Wilkinsburg,” Mosley said. “From a regional standpoint, I think we have to have a much larger conversation.”

Evans echoed that sentiment Tuesday.

"Many municipalities are struggling," she said. "They're in the same boat."

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.