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Adams Township v. Richland Township

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

February 22, 2017


          ARGUED: November 1, 2016

         Appeal 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.



          WECHT, JUSTICE

         In this case, two townships dispute the location of their common boundary. Pursuant to the Second Class Township Code, [1] the 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.

         I. Background

         Adams 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 The document is missing from the Cambria County Courthouse and appears in no other repository of historical documents or official records.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 common boundary.

         In 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.[2] 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.

         In 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[3] of the Second Class Township Code, 53 P.S. §§ 65101, et seq., to determine the location of the boundary.

         The 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.

         Relative to the previously-accepted[4] 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.

         The 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.[5] 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.[6] Some residents explained that differing tax rates or property values influenced their decisions regarding where to purchase property.[7] Numerous residents highlighted the importance of sending their children to their preferred school district.[8]

         Of 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.[9] 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.

         After 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 boundary.

         Critically, 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.

         Adams 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 Court.

         Finding 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 erred.

         Turning 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. at 1271.

         Apart 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.

         Continuing 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 Richland." Id.

         II. Analysis

         We 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.[10] 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 instructive.

         Richland 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 24.

         Richland 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.

         Adams 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.

         Adams 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.

         A. Standard of Review

         The 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."[11] 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.

         B. Article IX, Section 8 of the Pennsylvania Constitution and Boundary Disputes

         Before 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 ...

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