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Tar Heel Tattler - January 2006

Counties stray from straight and narrow
By Frank Maley

Sometimes it’s best to take a hard-line approach. That’s what Alamance and Guilford counties haven’t done in administering the boundary between them set in 1771. It looks straight on most maps. But zoom in, and the county line arcs about 350 feet toward Greensboro, says Roger Barnes, N.C. state and county boundary surveyor. Because surveying tools of the 18th century weren’t as precise as those today, county lines intended to be straight usually bow a bit. In fact, as with many county lines, nobody is exactly sure where the Guilford-Alamance one is.

Tax and planning boundaries between Guilford and Alamance are even worse, says Jenks Crayton, Guilford County tax director. Planning jurisdictions overlap, some parcels are taxed by both counties, and some are not taxed at all. For most of the last two centuries, few people cared because the land was mostly undeveloped. But as more homes and businesses have sprung up, the vagueness has created problems, including confusion about which county should answer emergency calls. To help solve them, Crayton put a resolution before Guilford commissioners asking the state for a survey. If the county line were straight, as the legislature intended, Guilford might gain about $150,000 in annual property-tax revenue, not much compared with the $246 million the county billed in the latest fiscal year, Crayton says.

Barnes, however, says he would probably recommend merely sanding off the imperfections of the arc in use. “Case law usually goes with where the line has been perceived for years and years and years.”

Besides, there probably won’t be a survey. Guilford commissioners nixed it. Some commissioners fear that a survey will create pressure to use it, possibly bring lawsuits and start a border war.

But the issue isn’t dead, Crayton says. Like Rip Van Winkle, it’s just been sleeping for a long time. “The bedbugs are going to bite every time we have to make an important decision about where something is. They’ve been biting for a while but not very frequently. But they’re going to bite more and more. And Rip might wake up. When he wakes up, Rip will see that the world has changed since the last time he stirred. And he’s real sore.”