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Pa. Supreme Court ruling means 'end of the road' for Wilkinsburg annexation effort

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

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has rejected an appeal filed by the group behind a 2022 attempt to fold the borough of Wilkinsburg into the City of Pittsburgh. The move ends the annexation effort under the terms of a 121-year-old procedure that offered no option for direct input from city voters.

The state's highest court on Wednesday denied the request to appeal filed last year by the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation, which sought to accomplish the borough's annexation by applying a procedure dating back to 1903. That approach would have allowed Wilkinsburg voters to vote on the annexation, but bypassed voters in the city by putting the choice in the hands of Pittsburgh City Council instead.

The CDC maintained that bringing the borough into the city would benefit both communities by boosting Pittsburgh's population, and by lowering property taxes and increasing services for Wilkinsburg residents.

But a group of Wilkinsburg residents sued to stop the annexation effort. And Allegheny County Senior Common Pleas Judge Joseph James ruled in 2022 that the annexation procedure became invalid in the 1960s, when the state legislature amended Pennsylvania’s constitution. Commonwealth Court affirmed that decision a year later, prompting the CDC's appeal to the Supreme Court.

The CDC argued that James' decision ignored a 1994 law that standardized municipal mergers across the state while explicitly excluding the state's first- and second-class cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The group contends that the 1994 law reversed the effect of the constitutional amendments, making the 1903 annexation procedure for Pittsburgh relevant once again.

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.”

But the Supreme Court also tacitly rejected that argument. The path forward for annexation proponents now likely would require them to start from scratch, by petitioning Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg voters to place a question about annexation on an upcoming ballot instead.

CDC executive director Tracey Evans could not be reached Wednesday for comment on the ruling.

But attorney Chuck Pascal, who represented annexation opponents, said the Supreme Court's denial means that the Commonwealth Court decision remains intact, and "the 1903 law has no legal effect."

"This is the end of the road on the effort that was filed in 2022," he said. "And it means that any future effort to merge these communities would have to give the voters in Pittsburgh a chance to vote on their own future, which seems kind of fair."

Pascal said he wasn't surprised by the court's denial, saying the CDC folks would have to prevail on all three of its arguments that the 1903 law was viable, and he thought each of them were tenuous.

"I never thought it had much of a chance," he said.

Chris Potter contributed to this report.

Cindi Lash joined Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting in 2021 from Missouri Lawyers Media, a subsidiary of BridgeTower Media, where she began her tenure as editor and regional editor in 2018. Before joining BridgeTower, she served as editor-in-chief at Pittsburgh Magazine for four years, and as regional editor of local news startup She previously spent 20 years as a reporter and editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.