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JOSEPHINE STOREY v. SUSQUEHANNA COUNTY BOARD ASSESSMENT (09/18/87)

COMMONWEALTH COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: September 18, 1987.

JOSEPHINE STOREY, BRAINTRIM TOWNSHIP, WYALUSING AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT AND WYOMING COUNTY, APPELLANTS
v.
SUSQUEHANNA COUNTY BOARD OF ASSESSMENT, APPELLEE

Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Susquehanna County in case of Josephine Storey, Braintrim Township and Wyalusing Area School District v. Susquehanna County Board of Assessment, No. 1985-292 C.P.

COUNSEL

James E. Davis, for appellants.

Robert G. Dean, for appellee.

Judges MacPhail and Palladino, and Senior Judge Blatt, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge Blatt. Judge MacPhail dissents.

Author: Blatt

[ 109 Pa. Commw. Page 419]

Josephine Storey, Braintrim Township, and Wyoming County (collectively, the appellants)*fn1 appeal an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Susquehanna County (trial court) which dismissed their appeal from an order of the Susquehanna County Board of Tax Assessment (Board). The Board had concluded that the manor house on the property owned by Mrs. Storey, which property was situate partly in Wyoming County and partly in Susquehanna County, was to be taxed in 1985 and subsequent years by Susquehanna County

[ 109 Pa. Commw. Page 420]

    pursuant to Section 608 of The Fourth to Eighth Class County Assessment Law (Law).*fn2

Mrs. Storey, a widow, has resided on the property concerned since August 1955 when she and her husband obtained title by virtue of a deed recorded in Wyoming County,*fn3 and taxes have been assessed against the property by Wyoming County since at least 1921. In 1985, however, Mrs. Storey received assessments from both Susquehanna and Wyoming Counties.*fn4 The Board, however, gave no notice of the Susquehanna County assessment to Wyalusing Area School District,*fn5 Braintrim Township, or Wyoming County, in contravention of Section 702(a) of the Law.*fn6 Mrs. Storey appealed this assessment to the Board, which, after a hearing on February 25, 1985, denied the appeal, again having given no notice of this action to Wyalusing Area School

[ 109 Pa. Commw. Page 421]

District, Braintrim Township, or Wyoming County. The appellants and Wyalusing Area School District thereafter appealed to the trial court, where hearings were held on September 26, 1985 and December 5, 1985, and the trial court received extensive evidence. The trial court thereafter concluded that their appeal was without merit.*fn7

Findings of the trial court on de novo review of a tax assessment appeal are, of course, entitled to great weight and will be disturbed only upon a finding of clear error. O'Merle v. Monroe County Board of Assessment, 95 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 141, 504 A.2d 975 (1986). The appellants contend here, however, that Susquehanna County failed to meet its burden of proof in order to overcome the historical evidence to the effect that Mrs. Storey's property should be taxed by Wyoming County. In support of this contention, they argue that the trial court erred in attributing "great weight" to the Commission Report of 1891 (Report of 1891) which established the boundary line between Lackawanna County and Susquehanna County.*fn8

Preliminarily, we note that the boundary line at issue here, which is the southern boundary of Susquehanna County, was first established by an act of the legislature in 1810 (Act of 1810), and we will adopt that portion of the trial court's opinion which notes that:

The County of Susquehanna was established by the legislature in the year of 1810. It has been bounded by four straight lines. The northern

[ 109 Pa. Commw. Page 422]

    line approximates the forty-second degree North Latitude and is generally considered the boundary between the State of New York and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The eastern boundary is a straight line where it abuts Wayne County. The western line is again a straight line; while it could not be considered technically rectangular, because of the contour of the earth, in a casual observation it would appear to be a rectangle. Reference to the county is set forth under Chapter XXX, an ACT to erect parts of Luzerne and Lycoming counties, into separate county districts, in the volume of 1810 of the Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, appellees' exhibit # 14, as follows:

SECT. II. And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That so much of the county of Luzerne, as is included in the following lines; to wit, Beginning at the fortieth mile stone [sic] standing on the north line of the state and running south along the east line of Ontario [Bradford] county. To a point due east of the head of Wyalusing falls in the river Susquehanna; thence due east to the western line of Wayne county; thence northerly [sic] along the said western line of Wayne county to the aforesaid north line of the state; and thence west along the said state line to the fortieth mile stone [sic], the place of beginning; be, and the same is hereby erected into a separate county to be henceforth called Susquehanna county; and the place of holding the courts of justice in and for said county shall be fixed by the same commissioners who shall be appointed by the governor, in pursuance of the first section of this act, at any place at a distance

[ 109 Pa. Commw. Page 423]

    not exceeding seven miles from the center of the county, which may be most beneficial and convenient for the same.

The southern line of Susquehanna County adjoins Lackwanna County on the east and forms the northern boundary of Lackawanna County. To the west of Lackawanna County, the southern boundary of Susquehanna County is also the northern boundary of Wyoming County. (Emphasis added.)

In 1842, however, a commission was appointed, pursuant to an Act of Assembly, to establish Wyoming County from a part of Luzerne County. In so doing, the commission issued a report (Report of 1842), which necessarily established the boundary line between Susquehanna and Wyoming Counties. Inasmuch as the boundary line, established pursuant to the Report of 1842, was located pursuant to a legislative mandate, we must review the trial court's opinion to determine whether or not the trial court properly observed a legislatively established boundary line, i.e., the boundary line established pursuant to the Act of 1810 or the boundary line established pursuant to the Report of 1842,*fn9 in concluding that the manor house on Mrs. Storey's property was located in Susquehanna County.

The trial court, here pertinently stated that:

Ronald Gruzesky was accepted as an expert witness. . . . This witness prepared [Susquehanna County's] Exhibit # 16 which shows the southwest corner of Susquehanna County. He picked that up and ran a line south 82 degrees and 15 minutes east. . . .

[ 109 Pa. Commw. Page 424]

And, we note that the southwestern corner of Susquehanna County is the northwestern corner of Wyoming County which was established both by the Act of 1810 and the Report of 1842. Mr. Gruzesky, however, merely read an excerpt from the Report of 1891, which referred to the Report of 1842. Moreover, the Report of 1891 related to a boundary line, i.e., the Susquehanna County-Lackawanna County boundary line, different than the one at issue here. The report of 1891, therefore, conclusively established the Susquehanna County-Lackawanna County boundary line, but had no binding authority over the Susquehanna County-Wyoming County boundary line. The trial court nonetheless adopted the boundary line established by Mr. Gruzesky as the "true line" and concluded that Mrs. Storey's manor house was located in Susquehanna County when it stated that:

[T]his discrepency [sic] between the legislative line and the actual line has long since been determined because in 1842 when Wyoming County was laid out, there was no question that its description exactly follows the present county line as it has been determined and followed in this case. This was noted by Mr. Gruzesky who had made a survey and a factual investigation on the scene. (Emphasis added.)*fn10

[ 109 Pa. Commw. Page 425]

The trial court, therefore, clearly relied on the Report of 1891 and Mr. Gruzesky's survey, both of which referenced the Report of 1842. In so doing, however,

[ 109 Pa. Commw. Page 426]

    the trial court established the location of the Susquehanna County-Wyoming County boundary line without relying on the actual Report of 1842.*fn11

Accordingly, the trial court, rather than determining the location of the manor house on Mrs. Storey's property with relation to a legislatively established boundary line between Susquehanna and Wyoming Counties, simply established a boundary line on the basis of the Report of 1891. In so doing, the trial court committed an error of law.*fn12 Inasmuch as the trial court made no findings concerning the location of the manor house with relation to a legislatively established boundary

[ 109 Pa. Commw. Page 427]

    line, and on the basis of the actual Report of 1842, we must remand this matter for those necessary findings.

Order

And Now, this 18th day of September, 1987, the order of the Court of Common Pleas of Susquehanna County in the above-captioned case is vacated, and this matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Jurisdiction relinquished.

Judge MacPhail dissents.

Disposition

Vacated and remanded.


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