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Fate of Wilkinsburg's Green Street Mini-Park is in hands of court

| Sunday, April 28, 2013, 11:31 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
A notice of a May 16, 2013 hearing involving the sale of Green Street Mini-Park in Wilkinsburg by Wilkinsburg School District hangs on the fence at the park on Sunday, April 28, 2013.

A group of Wilkinsburg neighbors and a nonprofit won a court victory in their fight to stop the school district from selling a small park to a developer, but the victory could be short-lived unless a higher court takes up the case.

On March 20, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Judith Friedman sided with the neighborhood group, but she indicated that if the Wilkinsburg School District were to fix procedural issues involved with the planned sale, she would have no reason to block the sale of Green Street Mini-Park during a May 16 hearing, said Linda Kauffman, one of the residents who objects to the sale.

School districts are required to obtain court approval to sell property they deemed unused and unnecessary.

Twenty-seven residents oppose the Wilkinsburg district's planned sale of the park at Mifflin Avenue and Green Street near Regent Square. With the Wilkinsburg-based Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, they filed an objection in court last month, arguing that the school district should not be allowed to sell the park because it is valuable green space that residents use and maintain.

“It's not a beautiful park, but it's the only one we have,” Kauffman said.

Philip Martell, the district's assistant director of business affairs, said the district maintains the park and maintenance is a financial burden.

Friedman ruled that the school district failed to comply with Pennsylvania School Code because it did not properly give public notice of the planned sale. The judge said the district violated the spirit of the law by having two people from the same real estate firm sign a property appraisal, instead of seeking more than one independent appraisal.

The district corrected those issues and submitted an amended court petition on April 17, district Solicitor Matthew Hoffman said.

“We're simply providing ample notice (of the sale) on and around the property,” Hoffman said.

On April 19, however, the opponents filed a notice of appeal to Commonwealth Court.

Hoffman argues they have no standing to appeal because they prevailed in Friedman's court.

“It's our intent to quash their appeal as premature,” he said.

The neighborhood group's attorney, Michael Wojcik, could not be reached for comment.

One issue contributing to the debate was uncertainty over who owns the property. For years, everyone thought the borough owned the property, but last year, the borough and school district discovered that the district has owned it since 1905, Wojcik has said.

If Commonwealth Court hears the neighborhood group's appeal, it's possible the school board's makeup could change during the delay. Five of the nine school board seats are up for election — four seats with four-year terms and a seat to complete the two years left on the term of Shannon Bennett, who resigned from the board.

A new board might be more willing to give the park to the borough, Kauffman said.

Wilkinsburg school board members did not return calls for comment.

The cash-strapped district has entered into an agreement to sell the park for $71,000 to Akator Construction of Westmoreland County, contingent upon the court's approval. Akator wants to build six single-family homes.

Tory N. Parrish is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5662.

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