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.