Commonwealth Court Considers Municipal Boundary Disputes

The Legal Intelligencer

(by Blaine Lucas and Anna Jewart)

This past May, a curio story made international news when a Belgian farmer moved a stone monument on his property by approximately 7.2 feet.  While this typically would have remained unknown, except to the farmer and perhaps to his neighbor, the farmer did not consider that the stone had been placed in 1819 to mark his home country’s border with France, and moving it resulted in an approximate 3,000 square foot loss of territory for the French.  Luckily, the change in location was quickly caught and resolved without international incident.  The quick discovery and resulting amicable resolution between the two nations was made possible in large part because the local Belgian municipality, Erquelinnes, had geo-localized the stones in 2019 for its 200th anniversary and knew exactly where it should have been.  A few days after the story went viral, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court addressed what happens when municipalities here misplace their historic markers and later disagree over the location of their common boundaries.  In Woodward Twp. Mun. Corp. of Clinton County, Pa. v. Dunnstable Twp. Mun. Corp. of Clinton County, Pa., Nos. 704 C.D. 2020, 733 C.D. 2020 (Pa. Cmwlth. May 12, 2021), disagreement over boundary stones and surveys dating back to 1844 resulted in a modern-day battle of the experts to determine exactly where the shared boundary of the two townships actually lies.

Although it was avoided by the farmer in Erquelinnes, wars and lawsuits are often fought over the location of boundaries, whether they are private, municipal, or international.  Consequently, Pennsylvania law provides certain protections for the agreed upon location of municipal boundaries, and establishes procedures for both how to change them willingly, and how to resolve disputes surrounding their location.  Article III, Section 32 of the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibits the state legislature from passing any local or special law that creates new counties, townships or boroughs or changes county limits, township lines, borough limits, or school districts.  In turn, it grants the electors of a municipality the right to consolidate, merge, and change boundaries by initiative and referendum, without the approval of any governing body.

Although the alteration of a known municipal boundary must be accomplished by majority vote of the citizens of a municipality, the resolution of a dispute over an uncertain municipal boundary may be handled only by the judiciary.  Pursuant to the various municipal codes, courts of common pleas are authorized to appoint a board of commissioners to determine the location of the boundary.  This board serves as fact-finder and its resulting determination has the force and effect of a jury verdict.  The findings of the board will not be disturbed by a reviewing court absent an abuse of discretion, so long as its determination was supported by legally competent testimony.

In Woodward, Woodward Township (“Woodward”) and Dunnstable Township (“Dunnstable”), both second class townships in Clinton County (“County”), disagreed over their shared boundary line.  The dispute began in the late 2000s, but the underlying issues dated back to the mid-1800s.  In the late 2000s, a Woodward supervisor noticed the boundary line depicted on the County Geographic Information System (“GIS”) Department’s maps did not coincide with the tax parcel maps.  In 2017, Woodward filed a petition in the Clinton County Court of Common Pleas for appointment of a board of boundary commissioners pursuant to Section 302 of the Second Class Township Code, 53 P.S. §65302, (“Code”).  In accordance with Section 302, the trial court appointed a board of three impartial citizens as commissioner (“Board”).  As required by the Code, the Board included a registered surveyor.  The other two members were an attorney and real estate professional.  In 2018 the Board conducted a hearing and view of the disputed boundary line and ultimately found in favor of the boundary proposed by Woodward.

The Board initially found that in 1841 Dunnstable was subdivided to create Woodward by the Court of Quarter Sessions of Clinton County, as was authorized by law at the time. In 1843, citizens in southwestern Dunnstable requested that the Court of Quarter Sessions adjust the boundary line between the two townships so that the area located on the southwestern side of Dunnstable would be annexed to Woodward, moving the southern boundary line eastward. In 1844, the Court of Quarter Sessions confirmed a report setting forth new boundary line.

Both sides presented the testimony of surveyors, neither of which could find the southernmost point of the 1841 boundary line between the two townships.  Both surveyors proposed boundary lines starting from a common point on an island in the Susquehanna River, headed north to a stone monument marking the former site of a maple tree, and then diverged.  The boundary proposed by Woodward’s surveyor headed due north, then due west, then due north again, based on the 1841 document which created the initial boundary.  The line proposed by Dunnstable’s surveyor was based on an assumption that in 1843 or 1844, the surveyor would have left monuments to mark the division line.  The Dunnstable surveyor searched for the monuments and based his boundary line along set stones he found.  This proposed line generally matched the Clinton County GIS line, although no one from the County testified at the hearing.  The majority of the Board ultimately found the boundary proposed by Woodward to be more credible and rejected the assumptions and findings set forth by the surveyor for Dunnstable.   Dunnstable appealed to the Commonwealth Court.

On appeal, Dunnstable argued the Board erred by failing to recognize two cut stone monuments, which it contended take precedence over any other description or source, and the 1844 court-ordered description of the change in boundary line was consistent with the findings of its survey.  In addition, it argued Woodward was attempting to illegally annex a portion of Dunnstable, which would require a referendum, and the Board had failed to take into consideration evidence of acquiescence by Woodward.

In considering the credibility of the Dunnstable and Woodward surveys, the Board had reasoned, based on prior case law, that where monuments are doubtful, courses and distances are considered more reliable.  It also found no relation in the placement of the set stones to the disputed boundary line.  The Commonwealth Court first observed that pursuant to the Code, when a board files its report and recommendation with the appointing court, it shall be confirmed nisi, and therefore the reviewing court may not disturb the Board’s determination unless it committed an error of law or its conclusion was not supported by competent evidence.  The Court found that because Dunnstable’s arguments addressed the weight and credibility given to the testimony and evidence presented by Woodward, not its competency, it was not permitted to set aside the Board’s findings.

Dunnstable also argued that Woodward was attempting to illegally annex a portion of Dunnstable through the statutory procedure reserved for the alteration of boundary lines.  However, the Court found that because the modern version of the Code only granted the Board the power to discern the location of a boundary, and not to alter that location, the misuse of the Code to achieve annexation was unlikely, and there was no evidence that Woodward was doing so.  Although the Court acknowledged there was evidence annexation had occurred in a manner no longer permissible, the annexation had taken place in 1844, not 2020, and those issues were not properly before the Court.

Dunnstable’s final issue involved the doctrine of acquiescence, which provides that long acquiescence in the location of municipal boundaries by the municipality and its inhabitants, where all municipal action and improvements have been done under the assumption those boundaries are correct, will support the conclusion that they are the true boundaries.  Evidence of acquiescence is relevant where there is doubt as to what the true boundaries were in fact, or as to the legality of their establishment.  This is particularly true where personal, civil, and political rights have become affixed according to the boundaries established by usage.  Dunnstable pointed to the testimony of a property owner who owned properties on both sides of the line, and constructed a house in 2009 which he intended to be placed in Dunnstable, based upon a 2008 survey.  Based on the Board’s decision, the home would now be located in Woodward.  However, the Court noted that case law dictated that acquiescence should only be considered where a boundary cannot be determined based upon the evidence.  While the Board had noted evidence of acquiescence, it had considered the evidence unnecessary given their finding of a true boundary line based on the evidence presented.  The Court therefore found there were no grounds to disturb that determination.

Although disputes over municipal boundaries remain fairly rare, they do occur, and the implications for municipal and private property rights are notable.  Although modern GIS mapping makes the recognition of known boundaries easier, the digital lines must still be based on historic surveys or markers which may have been lost, eroded, or even intentionally moved.  An updated review of their boundaries gained territory for Woodward Township, and saved Erliquennes, Belgium, from creating an international incident.

For the full article, click here.

Reprinted with permission from the June 17, 2021 edition of The Legal Intelligencer© 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved.