stable borders – mammoth // building nothing out of something

stable borders

My wife pointed me to a short but very interesting piece on NPR last night, about the re-surveying of the line between North Carolina and South Carolina:

JULIE ROSE: Way before there was GPS, years even before the Revolutionary War, surveyors on horseback drew the line between the colonies of North and South Carolina. Every mile or so, they made a slash on a tree and took notes – hickory here, chestnut there – standard practice for the time, but not so helpful in 2012.

ALEX RANKIN: We’ve worked the whole length of the survey, and to our knowledge, none of those trees exist 200 and almost 50 years later.

ROSE: Alex Rankin owns the Charlotte area engineering firm hired to help retrace the steps of those original boundary markers. The effort spans 334 miles from the Atlantic to the Appalachians and has cost the states nearly a million dollars. Without those original trees for guidance, Rankin’s team turned to matching up the edges of historic property deeds.

RANKIN: What we’re doing is simply discovering where the state line is. It is where it is.

ROSE: But that’s certainly not how it feels to Karen Byrnes. Just look at the document she signed when she closed on her home and 5 acres in 2006.

KAREN BYRNES: You know, it clearly shows that our home is in York County. And so now, they’re saying that the line has moved and now our house is in Mecklenburg County.

ROSE: York County is South Carolina. Mecklenburg is North Carolina.

BYRNES: We would not have purchased the home if it had been zoned Mecklenburg County or North Carolina.

ROSE: Byrnes prefers South Carolina’s lower taxes and schools for her 9-year-old son. Rather than switch residency, she’s listed her house for sale, even though she worries it will be worth less now that it’s in North Carolina. State officials working to retrace the boundary say about 93 properties appear to have discrepancies, concentrated in the highly developed Charlotte region. Some, like the Byrnes family, suddenly find themselves in a different state, but most are like Natalie Everett.

NATALIE EVERETT: I have a South Carolina neighbor and a North Carolina neighbor.

ROSE: And she just found out the state line splits her house.

What’s so fascinating here is that the act of surveying is actually producing increased uncertainty.

This is because the conflict here isn’t between a set of actors who want the border to remain where it is and a set of actors who want to adjust the border, but between two different understandings of what it would mean for the border to remain in place.  For the people living along the border, the border is (quite reasonably) defined by habit and custom: it is where they’ve always thought and acted like it is, which means that ultimately they understand the border to be constructed by the accumulated opinion of property owners.  For the states, though, the border is a legal entity, defined by the recording of its position in legal documents, and consequently a thing out there in the world, waiting to be excavated and clarified.

And with that in mind, you can see that the sentence I wrote above — “the act of surveying is actually producing increased uncertainty” — is only accurate if you accept the border residents’ point of view (which, again, is quite reasonable); from the states’ point of view, the survey is not producing anything, only revealing an existing conflict between practice and reality, because, for the state, the description of the border in a set of historical property deeds is more real than any other description of the border.

4 Responses to “stable borders”

  1. faslanyc says:

    love this. this small-scale collision between technology (tree-as-geo-political-marker) and politics of landscape is really fascinating.

    tell you one thing- i would not be associating with my neighbors any longer if it suddenly turned out one day that they were North Carolinians; those people are rednecks.

    • rholmes says:

      As a former resident of the Borderlands, I thought this was kind of hilarious: “she worries it will be worth less now that it’s in North Carolina”.

      And, yeah, the clash of technologies (slashed trees and property deeds) with what is effectively a common-law border makes it so compelling.

  2. namhenderson says:

    The NYT covered this story more recently…

    The article interestingly clarifies that the legalistic aspects are being managed by both states to avoid cross v=border fiscal or juridical implications. It is as you indicate the more psycho-geographic or historical loyalties that will be more problematic.

    “Lawyers in the attorney general’s offices in both states are looking into ways to minimize the impact. They cannot do much about football rivalries and barbecue preferences, but they can suggest to the legislatures some grandfathering in of families and businesses hard hit. Utility companies may be able to cross state lines in some cases, and the states’ departments of revenue are investigating how to offer some tax relief.”