Unrecorded Deed – Green Street Park
The land that is now Green Street Park, corner of Green Street and Mifflin Avenue, was purchased by Wilkinsburg School District in 1905 with the intention to build a school. Instead, a school building was built closer to the center of Wilkinsburg because the old Kelly School, a few blocks to the east of Green and Mifflin, was large enough for public school students in the third ward. In 1957, the school board, by unanimous resolution, offered the property to Wilkinsburg Borough. The borough Secretary-Manager wrote to the school district saying the borough “already has an investment of approximately $13,000 in this property due to improvements for playground purposes.” The borough council, by unanimous resolution, offered to buy the property for $1; the school district accepted the offer; and the then-school district solicitor was directed to prepare a deed to effect the transfer.
Two Wilkinsburg residents deserve appreciation for their roles in bringing this history to light. Jim Richard, noted by the minutes of the 1957 school board meetings as tax collector and in attendance at the meetings, remembers the school district deciding no school would be built on the site. Linda Kauffman, friend of Green Street Park, found the meeting minutes in the school district and borough archives.
From at least 1957 until 2011, the property was known as Green Street Park and was maintained by the borough general fund. Tax dollars paid to the borough paid to insure the borough for any claims related to the property (presumably) and paid DPW to cut the grass and maintain the playground equipment. In 1981 and in other years as well, the borough applied to PA state government for grants to improve the park with new playground equipment. The then-borough solicitor signed the required certification of title stating the borough was the owner of the park. The 1981 grant also paid for improvements to Kelly School and Turner School playgrounds, with the borough as the applicant, certifying that the borough leased the playgrounds from the school district throughout the year when school was not in session. The grant applied for in 1981 was administered by the PA Department of Natural Resources (now DCNR– Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) , disbursing money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Borough officials signed documents promising to keep the park “permanent open space” for public use. “The MUNICIPALITY further agrees that a suitable permanent public acknowledgement of Wand and Water Conservation Fund assistance shall be erected at the site.”
Is this ancient history? It is not forgotten history! An interactive map on the DCNR website shows the three Wilkinsburg “projects” that were paid for with the 1981 LWCF grant–
Checkbox “LWCF Developments” (yellow triangle) then zoom in on Allegheny County. Find three yellow triangles titled “Wilkinsburg Borough Parks” to see the grant/contract number. Friends of Green Street Park has a copy of the contract and other materials and statements from present DCNR officials that the commitment made by the borough to keep the park a park remains a real commitment, backed up by the possibility of legal enforcement.
Our park is also protected by Pennsylvania’s Donated and Dedicated Property Act, a law that has been used successfully elsewhere in Pennsylvania to stop the transfer of property dedicated for public use to private developers. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto thought he could give the city-owned Enright Park in East Liberty to a private developer who designed to incorporate the park land into a new housing development. No, Enright Park will remain in public ownership.
A lawsuit based on the Donated and Dedicated Property Act overturned the sale of a part of a large park in Chester County. One of the two development partners dropped the effort to acquire the land, and $250,000 paid by the developers was refunded by East Caln Supervisors.
Our effort to save Green Street Park is complicated by the failure of a former school district solicitor to record the deed that should have been prepared and recorded in 1957 in accordance with the matching resolutions to transfer the property. No deed was recorded to effect the transfer. In 2011, the owner of record was discovered to be Wilkinsburg School District. This came at a time when some council members were advocating that the park be “relinquished” because of the borough’s limited budget for park maintenance. Some people say– end of story, as the school district is the owner and the borough has no responsibility. Not so fast; here’s an analogy.
What if you bought a house, lived in it and maintained it for many years, paid all the expenses of ownership. You received tax bills in your name and paid them. That is, the tax billing records were changed from the former owner to you. But whoever was responsible for preparing the deed and recording it did not do so. You bought the house outright, so there was no mortgage lender protecting its interest by making sure the deed was recorded. Nothing brought the unrecorded deed to your attention. Many years later, the former owner discovered they were still the owner of record. So, as the owner of record, they sold your property to a new buyer. Would this be OK?
A significant difference between the analogy and Green Street Park is that in the analogy your individual investment and quality of life is at stake. With Green Street Park, it is our public park, maintained for many years by borough tax dollars, that is at stake. Does the borough council have the right to say, “Now we know we don’t own it (even though we spent tax dollars on it) and we will allow the school district to sell it and pocket the money. We want to be friends with the school district.” ??? The Pennsylvania Donated and Dedicated Property Act says: no, the council does not have the right to give away the park that has been dedicated for public use.
The dedication of land for public use has been found by courts to be in effect even when no deed mentions the dedication. Other criteria, such as proof of long-time use by the public can establish a property as a dedicated property. Dedication of land for public use gives the public real rights that cannot be made void by actions taken in the shifting sands of local government alliances.
Three questions– (1) What if the local government decides it cannot afford to continue maintaining a park? The law is clear– a municipality that wants to divest itself of a public park has to apply to Orphans’ Court to get permission to do so. Filing a petition with Orphan’s Court saying “we can’t afford the park” would give residents the opportunity to tell the court their plan for raising funds for park maintenance. When City of Pittsburgh wanted to stop maintaining the lawn bowling green in Frick Park (access from Reynolds Street), the lawn bowling club stepped up to support their green, and the plan to eliminate this well-known feature was seen to be unnecessary.
(2) What about language in the 1957 resolutions that states ownership of the property will revert to the school district if the borough “ceases to use said property for playground purposes for a period of one year”? When the borough told the school district in 2011– “you mow the grass”– did that revert the property to the school district? Hey, residents of Wilkinsburg are still using the park! Just a few days ago, some kids were riding their bikes in the park and said hello to my new puppy as we walked past the park.
(3) Wasn’t there already a lawsuit to stop the sale of Green Street Park that failed? The lawsuit that failed was brought in Common Pleas Court, not Orphans’ Court, and contested the right of the school district to sell the park under the provisions of the PA School Code. Friends of Green Street Park were not aware of the PA Donated and Dedicated Property Act when that lawsuit was filed. Environmental law has given the public real rights we did not know we had.
Please come to borough council meetings next Wednesday April 6 and the following Wednesday April 13 to ask council to respect the decision of its Planning Commission to deny a private developer’s proposed subdivision of the land for construction of six townhouses. The council meetings are held at the municipal building, 605 Ross Avenue, 2nd floor council chamber, at 7 pm. We believe (as of April 6) that on April 20, the council will hold a public hearing on the proposed subdivision and then vote to allow or deny the subdivision at a special meeting (publicly advertised today, two weeks before the date).
For more information,