Allegheny County judge dismissed third attempt to annex the Borough of Wilkinsburg to the City of Pittsburgh. On Friday, Judge Joseph James denied the petition to begin the annexation process and declared the annexation proceeding invalid.

The ruling effectively rejects the current annexation effort, whose supporters had hoped to put the issue before Wilkinsburg voters on the spring 2023 ballot.

Calls to the Wilkinsburg Community Development Corporation — the group mobilizing support for the annexation — were not immediately returned Friday afternoon. The group followed the annexation law of 1903, which required the Pittsburgh City Council and the voters of Wilkinsburg to approve the annexation. Pittsburgh voters will not weigh in on this procedure.

But earlier this month, the community development group’s executive director, Tracy Evans, said that if James rules against the annexation effort, her group will consider its options for moving forward.

In a two-page opinion, Judge James wrote that the 119-year-old law was effectively repealed when the legislature amended the Pennsylvania Constitution in 1968. At the time, lawmakers were supposed to establish uniform procedures for annexations, boundary changes and mergers by April 1970, but that didn’t happen.

“Because the Legislature did not pass uniform legislation regarding annexation procedures before April 23, 1970, all annexations after that date must be by initiative, as set forth in Article IX, Section 8” of the state Constitution, James wrote.

Judge James also noted that another merger procedure set forth in the Municipal Consolidation or Merger Act of 1994 excludes the City of Pittsburgh. This leaves the initiative procedure, which gives voters in both municipalities the right to vote, as the only viable mechanism.

That means the path forward for annexation advocates will require a majority of voters to support the effort in both Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh, which will be much more difficult than advocates had hoped. The 1903 procedure only required the support of at least five members of the Pittsburgh City Council in addition to the voters of Wilkinsburg. Proponents will now have to convince a majority of voters in a town with about 20 times the population of Wilkinsburg.

Friday’s ruling largely vindicates arguments made by attorney Chuck Pascal, who represents a group of Pittsburgh residents and a Wilkinsburg resident who objected to the petition. During a hearing earlier this monthPascal argued that the Legislature allowed the 1903 law to lapse in 1970, but also argued that the law has been repealed twice. In July, Act 41 invalidated several laws, establishing new rules for changing municipal boundaries, building permits and demolitions.

Pascal said Friday that he and his clients were “pleased” with the ruling and argued that before annexation can begin, “the voices of the people of both the City of Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg County deserve to be heard on
ballot box.”

Although much of the debate over annexation has taken place within city limits, it’s unclear how much support there is for the effort in Wilkinsburg. None of the three attempts to annex the district reached Wilkinsburg voters, but a group of district residents gave him fierce opposition. And other annexation opponents included Wilkinsburg itself and several area residents.