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New evidence found in boundary dispute

| Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2001

In light of new evidence uncovered in the Penn Hills-Wilkins Township boundary dispute, affected residents will have another day in court.

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has agreed to hear an appeal of the case in May, filed by a different group of petitioners from the original case in 1995.

In 1998, the ruling went in favor of Wilkins Township.

'As a result, the new border line is in discrepancy by two football fields,' said Gramac Road resident Gregory Swatchick, who was one of the petitioners in the first case, referring to the new boundary which now takes Princeton, Ridgecrest and Sunset drives into Wilkins Township.

The move briefly affected 44 students who had grown up believing they were in the Penn Hills School District. Instead of transferring them en masse to the Woodland Hills School District, they along with their younger brothers and sisters will be allowed to complete their educations in the Penn Hills School District.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Timothy Patrick O'Reilly dismissed the second case in mid-1999, calling it a 'second bite at the same apple by the losing litigants.'

As a result, there was some discussion of a permanent settlement which would have kept all residential property in Penn Hills and turned over all commercial property to Wilkins Township - including the new $8 million Vocollect building, owned by developer Joseph D'Andrea.

That settlement would have included $170,000 in legal fees incurred by attorneys representing Wilkins Township. D'Andrea stated earlier that he had paid more than that out of his own pocket for his legal fees. Figures on legal fees from Penn Hills were unavailable.

But what the attorneys seem to have missed in the first go-round were historical documents backing the position of the Penn Hills residents.

The dispute goes back further than the mid-1990s. The one piece of evidence that could settle the dispute once and for all - the original 1849-50 map and documentation defining the boundary line with Wilkins Township when Penn Township was formed - has been missing for nearly 63 years.

Allegheny County Courthouse records indicate the original map was checked out on Feb. 10, 1938 by the 'WPA,' presumed to be the Depression-era federal agency known as the Works Progress Administration.

But there is other evidence that the petitioners would like to see admitted, including:

  • An 1850 newspaper account announcing that a new township has been carved out of Wilkins, and that the line separating the two townships begins at Hall's Bridge over the creek known as Thompson Run. Penn Hills is arguing this is the true dividing line and that the bridge still remains.

  • An 1851 Library of Congress map of property owners, identifying Hall's Bridge where the Northern Pike crosses over Thompson Run.

  • Annual bridge reports obtained from the county engineer's office. In the original case from 1995, there was an 18-year gap in the record, with entries missing after 1876 and before 1894.

  • The 1876 report listed a 'Bridge No. 6,' a wooden span over Thompson Run at the border of Penn Township (now Penn Hills), Patton Township (now Monroeville) and Wilkins Township.

  • The 1877 bridge report shows that the wooden Bridge No. 6 was renamed Bridge No. 3 by the county.

  • The 1884 inspection report states the need to rebuild Bridge No. 3.

  • In the 1885 report, Bridge No. 3 is listed as an 'iron girder' span at the boundary of Penn, Patton and Wilkins townships.

  • An 1891 map of Allegheny County map lists Hall's Bridge as being the boundary line.

    When Swatchick and Ridgecrest Avenue resident Bill Cullen found the additional evidence, it was too late to get it into the court record.

    While Wilkins Township attorneys have argued that the bridge over the boundary line has been torn down, Penn Hills residents are countering that the additional evidence proves that Hall's Bridge, in one form or another, has been there all along.

    In a letter dated Oct. 17 to O'Reilly, Ridgecrest Drive resident Robert E. Butella cited what he feels is an 'error of omission' by the original boundary commission.

    'As a result, there is substantial error to provide substantial reason for the court to reconsider opening the boundary commission process,' Butella stated.

    Once the oral arguments are heard in Commonwealth Court, the petitioners are hoping that the case will be sent back to common pleas court to re-establish a boundary commission, or reconvene the previous one.

    'In any event, it is my understanding that the remaining petitioners are adamant that they do not believe a proposed settlement is legally permissible,' stated attorney Thomas Castello. 'As such, they will not consent to the proposed settlement.'

    Tom Jewell can be reached at tjewell@tribweb.com or (412) 380-8516.

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