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WEST ALEXANDER BOROUGH ANNEXATION CASE (03/16/73)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: March 16, 1973.

WEST ALEXANDER BOROUGH ANNEXATION CASE

Appeal from order of Superior Court, April T., 1970, No. 281, affirming order of Court of Common Pleas of Washington County, May T., 1967, No. 487, in re Annexation to the Borough of West Alexander of a portion of Donegal Township by the Town Council.

COUNSEL

Sanford S. Finder, with him George Anthou, for appellant.

Frank C. Carroll, with him Alexander McIlvaine, for appellees.

Eagen, O'Brien, Roberts, Pomeroy, Nix and Manderino, JJ. Opinion by Mr. Justice Nix. Mr. Chief Justice Jones took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Nix

[ 450 Pa. Page 454]

This proceeding arises from the refusal of the Court of Common Pleas of Washington County to approve the

[ 450 Pa. Page 455]

    annexation of a portion of Donegal Township to the Borough of West Alexander.

In August 1967, appellant, Borough of West Alexander, filed a petition pursuant to the Act of July 20, 1953, P. L. 550, § 1, 53 P.S. 67501,*fn1 seeking annexation of a portion of Donegal Township, a second class township, to the Borough of West Alexander. In September 1967, the Board of Supervisors of Donegal Township filed a complaint to the said petition alleging, inter alia, that a majority of the freeholders in the territory to be annexed were opposed.*fn2 A complaint was also filed by individuals residing in the territory to be annexed alleging that a majority had not signed the Borough's petition and that the descriptions in the papers filed were not accurate enough to determine who will, or might be, affected by the proposed annexation. At the same time, individuals alleging to be a majority of freeholders in interest in Donegal Township filed a petition asking for annexation. Following a hearing on the proposed annexation, the court below found that the proceedings were legally sufficient and appointed a board of commissioners to act under the Act of July 20, 1953, P. L. 550, § 3, 53 P.S. § 67503. The commission was specifically directed to determine whether a majority of the freeholders signed the petition.*fn3

[ 450 Pa. Page 456]

After conducting hearings the commission filed its report and stated that it was "unable to arrive at an affirmative conclusion, from the voluminous and often confusing evidence we have heard and seen, that 51 per cent or more of the freeholders in the territory proposed to be annexed have signed the petition for annexation." Proponents filed exceptions to the report which were dismissed. An opportunity to amend the petition was exercised, but this attempt was also dismissed and the court below entered an opinion and order dismissing the petition for annexation. The Superior Court*fn4 affirmed the dismissal and this appeal followed.

The sole issue raised by the appellant, Borough of West Alexander, is that it was denied a full and fair hearing before the board of commissioners. Specifically, appellant alleges that it did not have an opportunity to present its rebuttal evidence since on October 25, 1968, the commission, instead of conducting a scheduled hearing concluded without further testimony. A review of the record*fn5 supports appellant's claim.

[ 450 Pa. Page 457]

Our reading of the record reveals the following pertinent facts: On October 18, 1968, the commission was hearing evidence as to whether or not the signatures on the petition were valid and it was trying to determine whether certain individuals lived within the area to be annexed. At that time, both sides offered into evidence the maps and deeds which they believed adequately described the area and the chairman of the commission indicated on the record that further testimony on this point was not necessary. The following colloquy took place: "Mr. Anthou [Representative for the Borough of West Alexander]: Do you feel that there is any reason to go on with the description of -- Mr. Porter [Chairman of the Board of Commissioners]: No, because I got a good picture from Mr. Petros of the method he used and I take it he would go on around and show us that he did the same thing the rest of the way around the perimeter and I think he did an excellent job. I don't know what Mr. Petros' profession is, but if he is not a surveyor or a lawyer, it's even more to his credit. Mr. Anthou: One thing that has been a point of contention between both parties is the fact that the line does not meet in the end, do you want any evidence on that? Mr. Porter: The extent to which it doesn't close seems to me to be no worse than anybody would get from working with old deeds and old farm maps and old surveys. Even the survey of a single farm often won't close, as we all know. I'm not much disturbed about that because it's only one or two properties

[ 450 Pa. Page 458]

    possibly at the corner where it doesn't close that would be a problem. Mr. Carroll [Representative for Opposed Individuals]: I would disagree with that. One of our basic points in our position is by virtue of the inaccurate description, we're unable to determine who is within and who is without. Therefore, the difficulty has arisen as to who you count, how you count them and so forth. We're just unable to -- It seems to me that it is a very important position. If we do not know what is to be annexed, how can we tell if there is a majority. That is the first question which the Court requested the Commission to examine into. The Court is to determine, as I understand it, in its initial hearing whether or not there are a majority of the people. Mr. Anthou: I take it, Mr. Porter, that we should not get into the merits of the annexation until we have the preliminary question -- Mr. Porter: I'll do whatever you say. It's past 4:00 o'clock. I've got an idea we'll need another couple of hours on that. I don't want to work to 6:00 o'clock on Friday afternoon. I don't want to work until 4:00 o'clock on Friday afternoon. I don't want to have another hearing, but I don't see much escape from it. Mr. Anthou: I think we have done enough today. Mr. Porter: Recessed until Friday, October 25, 1:30 o'clock P.M., we hope and trust in this Court Room, if it's available."

Despite this clear indication that a further hearing was to be held, that the commission was satisfied with the description of the area to be annexed and that Mr. Petros, who prepared the map submitted by the appellant, had done an excellent job, the commission concluded the hearings and used the lack of an accurate survey as a basis for finding appellant's petition "illconceived and haphazardly executed". In its report the commission specifically stated that it could not determine whether 51 per cent of the freeholders had signed

[ 450 Pa. Page 459]

    the petition for annexation because "it is impossible to tell with certainty how many freeholders are in the area, since the description [contained in the petition] does not enclose any 'area'." In effect, even though the commission obviously changed its position as to the adequacy of the description, no opportunity to offer further testimony was afforded to the proponents. To the contrary, the hearings were concluded on October 25, 1968, notwithstanding the fact that another hearing was scheduled.*fn6

At best, this entire proceeding was conducted in a confusing and unprofessional manner and we are reluctant to perpetuate this confusion. Nevertheless, we are compelled to remand this matter to the court below since we agree with appellant that the commission violated one of the fundamental precepts of due process when it prevented the appellant from presenting its rebuttal evidence.*fn7

[ 450 Pa. Page 460]

We had occasion to analyze section 4 of the Act of July 20, 1953, P. L. 550, 53 P. L. § 67504, entitled "Hearing and findings by board of commissioners", in Palmer Township Annexation Case, 416 Pa. 163, 204 A.2d 760 (1964). There we stated that "[o]bviously the purpose of this additional proceeding is to adduce all of the Page 460} necessary information to assist the court in making a final decision as to whether the annexation is in the public interest." 416 Pa. at 178, 204 A.2d at 768 (emphasis added). Although we went on to note that this proceeding before the commission "is not a hearing in the sense that exceptions are to be filed by the parties or that either party takes on a burden of proof", 416 Pa. at 178, 204 A.2d at 768, this certainly does not mean that the ordinary rules of fairness and due process do not apply. A "hearing", if it means anything, contemplates a fair and impartial proceeding at which competent and relevant evidence may be presented. The nature of a hearing was discussed in a similar context in Unora v. Glen Alden Coal Co., 377 Pa. 7, 104 A.2d 104 (1954), and it was noted that "[i]n law, where a controversy is involved, a hearing intends a judgment bench attended by judges or officials sitting in a judicial capacity, prepared to listen to both sides of the dispute and to consider deeply, reflect broadly, and decide impartially. Studying papers is not a hearing; passing on a report moving across one's desk is not a hearing. The very genius of American jurisprudence shines in the opportunity it affords every litigant to present his case openly, publicly and untrammedly." 377 Pa. at 11, 104 A.2d at 106.

We therefore believe that appellant must at least be afforded a proper opportunity before the board of commissioners to present its evidence with respect to whether a sufficient number of freeholders had signed the petition for annexation. By mandating that this fair hearing be held, we are imposing upon the lower court those procedural requirements demanded by rudimentary due process. As the United States Supreme Court has noted: "Many controversies have raged about the cryptic and abstract words of the Due Process Clause but there can be no doubt that at a minimum they require

[ 450 Pa. Page 461]

    that deprivation of life, liberty or property by adjudication be preceded by notice and opportunity for hearing appropriate to the nature of the case." Mullane v. Central Hanover Bank & Trust Co., 339 U.S. 306, 313 (1950).

Accordingly, the order of the Superior Court is reversed and the case remanded to the court below for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Disposition

Order of Superior Court reversed and case remanded to court below.


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