ARGUED: November 1, 2016
from the Order of the Commonwealth Court entered December 18,
2015 at No. 2023 CD 2014, vacating the Order of the Court of
Common Pleas of Cambria County entered October 13, 2014 at
No. 1223-2013, and remanding.
SAYLOR, C.J., BAER, TODD, DONOHUE, DOUGHERTY, WECHT, MUNDY,
case, two townships dispute the location of their common
boundary. Pursuant to the Second Class Township Code,
trial court appointed three commissioners to ascertain that
boundary. We granted allowance of appeal to consider whether
such commissioners, when tasked with determining the location
of a municipal boundary but concluding that they cannot do so
with certainty, may consider the townships' acquiescence
to a line used as the boundary and relied upon by residents,
and accordingly recommend the adoption of that alternative
line as the municipal boundary. We conclude that, in such a
narrow circumstance, the commissioners may rely upon the
equitable doctrine of acquiescence in making their
determination, and need not search indefinitely for evidence
of the original boundary. Accordingly, we reverse the order
of the Commonwealth Court and remand for reinstatement of the
trial court's order.
Township ("Adams") and Richland Township
("Richland"), both located in Cambria County,
dispute the location of their shared boundary. Adams was
carved out of Richland in 1870. Although the document that
established Adams presumably would have described the
boundary between the townships, that document has been lost.
The document is missing from the Cambria County Courthouse
and appears in no other repository of historical documents or
official records. No copies of the document are known to
exist. The townships and their residents long used a line
depicted in the Cambria County tax assessment map as the
2004, the townships were putative defendants in litigation
arising from an automobile accident, and they disputed their
liability based upon the location of the accident. With the
location of the true boundary thus in question, the townships
jointly hired a professional surveyor, Frederick Brown, to
identify and plot the boundary. Brown relied, in part, upon a
survey of nearby municipalities that was performed around
1930. That survey was not conducted to ascertain the boundary
between Adams and Richland, but purportedly depicted the
northernmost point where the townships meet. Brown further
considered a number of "monuments" that aided in
his location of that northernmost point along the boundary.
Brown believed that a monument to the south of that point
established a line, and that, because the original boundary
was a straight line, such a line could be extended to
determine the location of the southernmost point where the
townships meet. Thus, Brown opined, that line was the
original boundary between Adams and Richland. As further
support, Brown pointed to differentiations in macadam on two
roads near his proposed line.
2006, Watkins Glen Properties, Inc. ("Watkins
Glen"), was planning to develop a subdivision on a plot
of land that ostensibly was situated in both Adams and
Richland, and it sought clarification from the townships as
to the location of the municipal boundary. Richland advised
Watkins Glen to follow the tax assessment line, but Adams
advised the developer to follow the line established in
Brown's survey. The matter remained unresolved for seven
years before Watkins Glen requested that the townships
resolve their disagreement over the location of the boundary.
Accordingly, on April 17, 2013, Adams filed an action for a
declaratory judgment, seeking a judicial declaration that
Brown's proposed line represents the true boundary
between Adams and Richland. The trial court, in turn,
appointed a board of commissioners ("Board")
pursuant to Section 303 of the Second Class Township Code, 53
P.S. §§ 65101, et seq., to determine the
location of the boundary.
Board held hearings on November 15, 2013, December 20, 2013,
and April 4, 2014. In support of its position, Adams
presented the testimony of Frederick Brown, who explained the
reasoning behind his survey. Richland offered the testimony
of another professional surveyor, David Kalina. Kalina did
not conduct his own survey, but he testified that he
researched historical documents dating back to 1872. Kalina
agreed with Brown that the original boundary was a straight
line, but his research led him to conclude that the
northernmost point where Adams and Richland meet is a point
northeast of the location that Brown identified. Kalina
opined that the original boundary could be discerned by
extending a line from that point southward to a farm that he
identified as the original southern point of convergence
between the townships. Kalina believed that the older records
that he consulted were more reliable than the documents upon
which Brown relied, because they were created closer in time
to the establishment of the original boundary.
to the previously-accepted tax assessment line, the differing
boundary lines that Brown and Kalina suggested would have
varying impacts upon property owners in the area. Brown's
proposed boundary would move at least six individuals'
properties, including a substantial portion of Watkins
Glen's proposed subdivision, from Richland into Adams,
and would move several properties from Adams into Richland.
Kalina's proposed boundary, lying well to the east of
Brown's and the tax assessment line, would move hundreds
of properties from Adams into Richland.
Board also heard testimony from numerous residents of the
disputed area. In general, the residents expressed a desire
to maintain the status quo of using the tax
assessment line as the municipal boundary because they had
come to rely upon it in making decisions regarding their
properties. All residents who testified indicated that they
wished for their properties to remain situated according to
their understanding of the township boundary, or explained
that they would not have purchased property in the other
township originally. Under questioning, some residents stated
that they would not object to an alternative boundary,
provided that it would not move their properties into the
other township. Some residents explained that differing
tax rates or property values influenced their decisions
regarding where to purchase property. Numerous residents
highlighted the importance of sending their children to their
preferred school district.
significance to the Board's subsequent legal
determination, three residents testified that they built
houses upon their properties (or made substantial
renovations) based upon their understandings of the municipal
boundary. Specifically, Debra Kuhne testified that
she purchased property in 1985, relying upon surveys, county
maps, and tax assessment records that indicated that the
property lay in Richland. N.T., 11/15/2013, at 87. She
constructed a house on the property in 1986. Id. at
92. If Brown's proposed line was adopted as the boundary,
her property would be reassessed into Adams. Id. at
88-89. Robert Burnworth testified that he purchased property
which he understood to lie in Richland, and that he would not
have purchased it if it lay in Adams. Id. at 138.
Brown's proposed line also would place Mr.
Burnworth's home in Adams. Id. In the two years
preceding the hearing, Mr. Burnworth had spent over $40, 000
renovating his home, and would not have done so if he knew
that his property would lie in Adams. Id. Edward
Englehart testified that he and his in-laws purchased a tract
of undeveloped land approximately forty years before the
instant litigation, and they divided the property with the
understanding that his parcel would lie in Adams and his
in-laws' parcel would lie in Richland. N.T., 4/4/2014, at
90-92. Both Mr. Englehart and his in-laws constructed houses
on their respective parcels. Id. at 92. Mr.
Englehart obtained a building permit from Adams, and his
in-laws obtained a building permit from Richland.
Id. at 94. Although Mr. Englehart no longer owns the
property, the adoption of Brown's proposed line would
move his in-laws' property from Richland into Adams.
Id. at 93-94.
considering all of the evidence presented, the Board
determined that "[t]here is insufficient evidence in the
record to permit the Board to determine where the original
1870 boundary line was established." "Board of
Commission's Report, " 6/16/2014, at 9. The Board
rejected the expert opinions of both Brown and Kalina.
Although noting that Brown's proposed boundary reflected
"the most reasonable analysis and alternative to the
[tax assessment line], " the Board concluded that it was
"unable to find sufficient supporting evidence in the
record, when weighing all factors, including, but not limited
to [the] credibility of all witnesses, to support any Board
determination" that Brown's proposed line was the
true boundary. Id. at 8. However, the Board found
that Kalina's opinion was based upon speculation and
conjecture, and reflected "self-serving interpretations
of select documents" and a disregard for contradicting
documents and records. Id. at 9. Further, the Board
noted that "[t]here are official governmental records
that refute each expert's opinion of the location of the
boundary line." Id. Thus, the Board concluded
that it was unable to determine the true location of the
the Board found that "there were substantial
improvements by the property owners affected by the dispute,
which were reasonably induced by the [townships'] long
acquiescence [to] the current boundary line, which is based
upon the tax assessment maps." Id. Because the
true location of the boundary could not be ascertained from
the evidence presented, and because property owners had
substantially improved their properties in justifiable
reliance upon the tax assessment line and the townships'
acquiescence to that line, the Board recommended the adoption
of the tax assessment line as the boundary between Adams and
Richland. The Board recognized that the tax assessment line
was not the original 1870 boundary. Nevertheless, it
concluded that "no testimony revealed a superior
methodology, " and, "despite the inherent
inaccuracies in county tax assessment records, " the
adoption of the tax assessment line was "tenable,
reasonable, and justifiable." Id. at 16. The
Board reasoned that "[a]ny other determination would be
based upon speculation and conjecture." Id.
filed exceptions to the Board's report, which the trial
court rejected. The trial court confirmed the Board's
report and, after obtaining a metes and bounds description of
the tax assessment line, entered a final order establishing
that line as the boundary between Adams and Richland. Adams
appealed the trial court's order to the Commonwealth
that the Board exceeded the scope of its statutory duty, the
Commonwealth Court vacated the trial court's order and
remanded, directing the trial court to take whatever action
it deemed necessary to determine the location of the original
boundary between Adams and Richland. Adams Twp. v.
Richland Twp., 129 A.3d 1264, 1271-72 (Pa. Cmwlth.
2015). The Commonwealth Court's central premise was that
"a board of commissioners' duty under Section 303 of
the [Second Class Township] Code is not to determine a
fair boundary, but rather to ascertain or recreate
the original boundary at the inception of one or two
municipalities." Id. at 1269-70 (emphasis in
original). The court characterized the Board's conclusion
as recommending the "adoption of the tax assessment map
as the original boundary line, " rather than an
alternative to the original boundary. Id. at 1270.
However, because the tax assessment line undisputedly was not
the original boundary between Adams and Richland, the
Commonwealth Court concluded that the Board necessarily
to the doctrine of acquiescence upon which the Board based
its determination, the Commonwealth Court acknowledged that
it previously addressed the doctrine in Laflin Borough v.
Jenkins Township, 422 A.2d 1186 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1980)
("Laflin II"); Moon Township v.
Findlay Township, 553 A.2d 500 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1989); and
In re Viola, 838 A.2d 21 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2003). From
this trio of cases, the Commonwealth Court distilled the
principle that "a board of commissioners may, in certain
circumstances, consider . . . equitable principles, but only
after complying with its duty to determine an original
boundary line." Adams, 129 A.3d at 1270. The
court reasoned that, because the Board failed to establish
the location of the original boundary, its consideration of
the townships' acquiescence to an alternative line was
premature. Accordingly, even if evidence of acquiescence
ultimately would influence the Board's recommendation,
the Commonwealth Court concluded that "the Board erred
by considering such evidence when it did." Id.
from the timing or sequence of considerations vital to the
Board's reasoning, the Commonwealth Court also rejected
the Board's conclusion regarding the particular evidence
of the property owners' substantial improvements.
Specifically, the court identified the testimony of only one
individual, Robert Burnworth, who described renovations to
his home and who continued to possess an interest in property
potentially affected by the dispute.
to stress the importance of locating the original boundary,
the Commonwealth Court suggested a process by which the trial
court or the Board might comply with its order on remand.
Essentially, the Commonwealth Court called for further
fact-finding in the form of an indefinite number of title
searches. The court acknowledged that it "would appear
to constitute a herculean task to investigate every
conceivable property deed" that might inform the
determination. Id. Nevertheless, given the consensus
of the townships' experts that the original boundary was
a straight line, the court suggested that "historical
deeds of some properties in key locations might
provide more definite clues to properties along the true
original boundary line and render evidence the Board
initially characterized as speculative to be circumstantial
evidence of a particular boundary." Id.
(emphasis in original). Accordingly, the Commonwealth Court
vacated the trial court's order and remanded the case for
the trial court to "take such action as is necessary to
determine the actual boundary line between Adams and
granted Richland's petition for allowance of appeal to
consider whether the doctrine of acquiescence permitted the
adoption of the tax assessment line as the boundary between
Adams and Richland, despite the fact that the tax assessment
line undisputedly is not the original 1870
boundary. This Court never has addressed the
application of acquiescence principles to a municipal
boundary dispute. As noted, however, the Commonwealth Court
has considered the doctrine in several cases, and, although
not binding upon this Court, its prior analyses are
argues that the Board's determination reflected a
practical resolution of the otherwise-insoluble problem
arising from the lack of reliable evidence of the true
boundary. Brief for Richland at 17. Contrary to the
Commonwealth Court's characterization, Richland notes
that the Board never considered the tax assessment line to be
the original boundary. Id. at 18-19. Instead,
Richland asserts that the Board correctly recommended its
adoption as an alternative boundary because the true boundary
could not be ascertained and because the doctrine of
acquiescence supported such a recommendation. Richland argues
that the Commonwealth Court's decisions in Laflin
II, Moon, and Viola demonstrate the
viability of the doctrine, and that the Board correctly
interpreted and applied those precedents. Richland argues
that those cases do not support the Commonwealth Court's
holding that the original boundary must be established prior
to consideration of acquiescence principles. Id. at
highlights the testimony of property owners, Debra Kuhne,
Robert Burnworth, and Edward Englehart, who detailed the
substantial improvements to their properties made in reliance
upon the "historically recognized division line"
between Adams and Richland, which the Board concluded
established a sufficient basis to apply the doctrine of
acquiescence. Id. at 28. Richland disputes the
Commonwealth Court's conclusion that only Robert
Burnworth's testimony constituted competent evidence of
substantial improvements, and argues that the Board correctly
considered the testimony of all three property owners.
Finally, Richland asserts that compliance with the
Commonwealth Court's order on remand will be unduly
onerous and will extend the period of uncertainty that has
been disruptive to the community.
argues that the Board was required by statute to establish
the location of the original boundary, and that its
recommendation reflected an erroneous effort to alter the
municipal boundary "so as to suit the convenience of the
inhabitants, " which, although once a viable statutory
basis for boundary alteration, no longer is authorized by
Section 302 of the Second Class Township Code. Brief for
Adams at 6-8. Adams asserts that there was no need to select
a "practical alternative" boundary because
"overwhelming evidence" supported the adoption of
Brown's proposed line as the original boundary.
Id. at 10.
agrees with the Commonwealth Court's conclusion that the
Board should not have considered the doctrine of acquiescence
prior to establishing the location of the original boundary.
Id. at 16-17. Furthermore, Adams asserts that the
Board erred in concluding that the property owners'
testimony constituted sufficient evidence of substantial
improvements to support the doctrine's application.
Although Adams concedes that Robert Burnworth's testimony
was competent evidence because he spent over $40, 000.00 in
improvements, Adams notes that Edward Englehart "made no
reference to costs, " and Debra Kuhne offered "[n]o
evidence of substantial property improvements."
Id. at 16. Thus, Adams argues that the Board's
determination was not supported by competent evidence.
Standard of Review
Commonwealth Court has held that, because resolution of a
municipal boundary dispute requires commissioners to
determine the legally correct boundary, those commissioners
are not restricted to considering only the lines proposed by
an interested party, and there is no burden of proof to be
allocated. See Moon, 553 A.2d at 503-04. When a
trial court appoints a board of commissioners to determine
the location of a municipal boundary, the board serves as the
fact-finder and possesses the exclusive prerogative to
determine the weight of the evidence presented. See
Viola, 838 A.2d at 27 (citing Robinson Twp. v.
Collier Twp., 303 A.2d 575 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1973)). The
board's determination "has the force and effect of a
jury verdict and, therefore, when there is legally competent
testimony to support the order, it will not be disturbed by a
reviewing court." Robinson Twp., 303 A.2d at
577. Section 303 of the Second Class Township Code directs
that, when a board files its report and recommendation with
the appointing court, "it shall be confirmed
nisi." 53 P.S. § 65303. A reviewing court
may not disturb the board's determination unless the
board committed an error of law or its conclusion was not
supported by competent evidence. See Moon, 553 A.2d
at 504; Viola, 838 A.2d at 26.
Article IX, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and
discussing the relevant Commonwealth Court precedent on the
doctrine of acquiescence, we find it helpful to review the
constitutional and statutory background that underlies the
legal issues surrounding municipal boundaries in this
commonwealth, particularly in light of ...