How A Colonial-Era Error Put The Carolinas At Odds

Robert Siegel speaks with Stephen R. Kelly, a visiting professor at Duke University, about how North and South Carolina hope to resolve questions about the border between them. The original border, which was mandated by the British during the colonial era, was never surveyed properly. That's caused headaches ever since the 18th century.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You know, you have to draw the line somewhere - as the old expression goes. And it's helpful if that line is in the right place. We're going to hear next about a case where it isn't - the border between North Carolina and South Carolina - a line that Carolinians seem to have lost track of over the years. The two states have been working together to resolve discrepancies in where the border is, without getting into an expensive legal dispute. Stephen Kelly is visiting professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. He wrote a piece in the New York Times' "Sunday Review" about the faulty borderline and he joins us from the Duke campus. Welcome to the program.

STEPHEN KELLY: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And how old is this problem?

KELLY: Well, depending on how you look at it, it's either 280 years old or 20 years old. 20 if you're counting the point where the two states says gosh, we lost the border. We've got to find it again.

SIEGEL: When did they lose it?

KELLY: Well, it was surveyed in a way that deviated from what was originally intended. But the two states agreed in 1815 that this somewhat messy boundary was the definitive line. They marked on trees, and then time passed and all those trees died and by the 1990's, nobody was exactly sure where the boundary was.

SIEGEL: Hence the last 20 years, during which they've actually been trying to figure that out.

KELLY: Exactly. So what they've been trying to do is - not drawing a new line and they're not trying to correct the mistakes that were made back in 17 and 1800's. Once the two states agreed on the boundary - that's the boundary. They're simply trying to find the line that the two states agreed to in 1815 - that's what had disappeared.

SIEGEL: Well, are there a lot of places that are suspected to be on the wrong side of the line? People who think they're North Carolinians but really ought to be South Carolinians and vice versa?

KELLY: Indeed, especially around Charlotte. The good news is that much of the boundary is still in rural areas today, so the fact that the real boundary has popped up in unexpected places didn't cause as much heartache as it would in 20 more years. But around the Charlotte area, there are people who have discovered that in fact, their house is in a different state, which means they're in a different school district and the school bus may or may not come pick up their kids anymore, and they may or may not be entitled to in-state tuition in the state that they thought they were living in. Many of these cases are relatively easy to fix, and both state legislators are coming up with legislation to do just that.

SIEGEL: I gather there's a gentleman with a gas station who feels especially affected by all this?

KELLY: He's got the most difficult problem because when the gas station was built in the early nineties, York County, South Carolina said this piece of land is in South Carolina, and we're going to tax you on it - you're going to pay property taxes to us. Unfortunately, when they re-found the line - when they reestablished the line - the gas station is totally in North Carolina. And the gas tax here is more than 20 cents greater than South Carolina, and you can't sell beer or fireworks in a gas station, so the business model for this gas station has gone out the window.

SIEGEL: Professor Kelly, thank you very much for talking with us.

KELLY: My pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Stephen Kelly, visiting professor in the Sanford School of Public policy at Duke University. We were talking about the dispute over the border between the Carolinas.

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