Carolina confusion: Time to fix a 280-year-old border problem

It’s not every day you can fix a problem more than 280 years in the making. But that’s exactly what North Carolina’s embattled lawmakers have the chance to do during the legislative session that began Monday.

The problem that needs fixing deals with North Carolina’s serpentine 334-mile border with South Carolina, which colonial surveyors first began hacking out of the swampy wilderness in 1735. They and the crews that followed over the next 80 years blazed marks on trees to document their work. Those trees, not surprisingly, are long gone, taking with them the exact location of many parts of the boundary.

CSI-worthy surveyors from both states have spent the past 20 years tracking down that boundary and remarking it with computer-age accuracy. But their work, along with measures to ease the shock of property owners who’ve discovered they actually live in a different Carolina, needs the blessing of lawmakers from both states before it becomes official. And the window to get it through the two legislatures is rapidly shrinking.

Our reputationally challenged lawmakers should seize this historic opportunity to look good.

Compared with the other landmines on this session’s legislative agenda, fixing the border may seem like an easy lift. After all, clearly demarcated boundaries are central to modern American life, determining where you vote, send your kids to school or get emergency help. Fuzziness here is hazardous when you are waiting for an ambulance.

But fuzziness has been the rule in the Carolinas since the last of those border trees died decades ago. The lack of a definitive state line led local officials in adjoining boundary jurisdictions to invent their own maps showing who was taxing what, but these maps rarely matched up, leaving overlaps, gaps and general uncertainty about where one Carolina ended and the other began. As long as most of the land was in rural areas, this inaccuracy was tolerable.

In the early 1990s, however, as development surged in the border region around Charlotte, the mapping agencies in Raleigh and Columbia agreed the states deserved more precision. They also agreed that their task was to find the original boundary, not invent a new one, since the N.C. Constitution expressly forbids such alterations. Perhaps most importantly, they agreed to find it together rather than fighting about it, which is what most states with similar disputes often do.

And find it they did. Piecing together Colonial property plats that showed those original boundary trees, unearthing what stone monuments still exist and using cutting-edge mapping software, they reassembled the boundary and pegged its location with military-grade GPS equipment. A Joint Boundary Commission composed of legislators and state officials appointed by the two governors blessed their final surveys in 2013. They now need legislative action to take effect.

Unfortunately, not everyone is happy about where the boundary has re-emerged. Two businesses and 19 homeowners have discovered they actually reside in a different state, including a gas station that had thrived in its location just south of the alleged state line by selling beer, wine and cheap gasoline. It turns out the station is actually in North Carolina, where gas taxes are nearly 19 cents a gallon higher and alcohol sales are forbidden.

The two states have gone to great lengths to ease the pain of this handful of property owners. Bills pending in both general assemblies would allow them to continue attending the same schools, protect them from back taxes and maintain their in-state tuition rights. The N.C. bill even allows that gas station to continue selling beer and charging the South Carolina gas tax for a few years.

But for some of the South Carolina homeowners who in fact live in the Old North State, this is still not enough. Their state representative has blocked action in the S.C. House until more is done to accommodate her constituents – if they are still her constituents!

This is where our N.C. lawmakers can take charge. Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-Monroe, a member of the Joint Boundary Commission, introduced the N.C. companion bill back in March 2015. Lawmakers need to pass this soon, because the S.C. legislature adjourns for the year on June 2. South Carolina officials believe if North Carolina passes its bill now, they can overcome the final resistance in their legislature before adjourning. If not, final action on the new maps and remedial measures would linger at least another year.

The states, and not the hapless homeowners and businesses, share responsibility for failing to notice a border was disappearing. But doing nothing only makes matters worse for the very people affected the most. If you aren’t sure where you live, how can you get a building permit, or a mortgage, or an election ballot?

Our N.C lawmakers can make all this clear, and make history in the process. They should seize this opportunity to look good.

Stephen R. Kelly teaches a class on border issues at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.