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Border ruling favorable for apartment developer

| Wednesday, March 21, 2001

After more than 2 1/2 years of legal wrangling, a court-appointed commission studying the border of two southern Butler County municipalities has issued a ruling.

The broad impact of the commission's report, though, has yet to be determined as lawyers and surveyors begin wading through the 30-page decision. The long-term implications of the ruling could affect three municipalities and two school districts - Cranberry and Adams townships, the borough of Seven Fields and the Seneca Valley and Mars Area school districts.

The Border Commission, appointed by a Butler County judge in January 1999, released a report Monday ruling that the boundary between Adams and Cranberry townships on Rocco Viola Jr.'s property will move westward by about 100 feet. Viola's property was split almost in half by the tax assessment line putting 45 acres in Cranberry Township and 45 acres in Adams Township. Now, a larger portion of the property will be in Adams Township.

Viola, a lawyer-turned-developer, wants to build apartments on the 90-acre farm along Myoma Road.

Adams Township's zoning ordinances would allow Viola a higher-density development than Cranberry Township's would.

'This is second-best for Mr. Viola,' said Robert Kennedy Jr., attorney for Viola. 'Mr. Viola had argued that the boundary should be established at his western-most property line. Mr. (David) Newcomer's line is second-best.'

Newcomer is the engineer for Adams Township, and, more than a year ago, he began work on establishing the boundary between Adams and Cranberry.

In October 1998, the court ordered that a commission 'shall ascertain the boundary line between Adams Township and Cranberry Township on (Viola's) property.'

Viola wanted his land to be considered part of Adams Township and had asked Butler County Common Pleas Court to decide where the boundary line should be placed. Kennedy said Viola initially filed suit July 24, 1998.

'It is very good to have a decision,' Kennedy said.

The commission reached its decision after listening to about 3 1/2 days worth of testimony.

The decision, however, leaves local officials with a lot of questions.

'At this point, we are trying to interpret the ruling,' said Christine Wells, Seven Fields borough manager.

Seven Fields officials are worried the ruling to establish a boundary west of the current line could cause part of the borough to become part of Adams Township and even could put part of the Seven Fields municipal building in Adams Township.

Doug Weinrich, Seven Fields solicitor, had argued that the border commission should use the tax map lines.

But Matthew Marshall, who represented Mars Area School District, said tax map lines are unscientific.

The school district entered the fray because many of its students come from Adams Township, and if the border is moved, that could affect collection of taxes and what school some students might attend.

Seneca Valley is the neighboring district. Many of its students come from Cranberry.

The commission's report states that Newcomer's line is close to the line established by an 1858 map. If the line was extended northward through Cranberry, about five homes in the Crystal Springs subdivision would change from Cranberry to Adams, which also means they would change from Seneca Valley schools to Mars Area schools.

Kennedy said any of the parties involved has 20 days to file their objections to the report.

Under legal precedent, a Butler County judge must approve the report. Citing the precedent set by an earlier finding by a border commission, the report said 'that its determination could not be disturbed by the court except with respect to errors of law if there was legally competent evidence to support the determination of the Commission.'

The ruling, while it is specific to the Viola property, opens the possibility of residents changing municipalities and school districts.

'If a boundary is established for Rocco Viola's property, it de facto establishes the boundary for everybody else,' Weinrich said.

According to the report, 'improvements have been made to properties south of this property and properties north of this property.'

'Whether the decision in this case will control the location of the line on properties both north and south may well be open to question, since properties where improvements have been made and where municipalities have effectively accepted the location of the line by what townships, and school districts, are imposing taxation, may subject those properties to the argument of acquiescence. However, that must be left for another day,' the report said.

Marshall said he was unsure whether it was property owners or municipalities that could use the Viola ruling to move the border for neighboring properties.

'It's clear what (the report) says,' Weinrich said. 'But what does it mean?'

Dominick DiRienzo can be reached at ddirienzo@tribweb.com or (724) 779-7124.

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