Politics & Government

Bill to settle SC-NC border in limbo in S.C. House

The Lake Wylie Mini Mart could be affected by plans to create a new state boundary line near Lake Wylie. Because of state tax codes, the market sells gas cheaper in South Carolina.
The Lake Wylie Mini Mart could be affected by plans to create a new state boundary line near Lake Wylie. Because of state tax codes, the market sells gas cheaper in South Carolina. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

A bill 20 years in the making that would clarify the 333-mile border between South Carolina and North Carolina has run into a roadblock in the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill would settle, once and for all, which state nearly 150 residences and four businesses lie in. Both state legislatures would need to approve it.

But Rep. Raye Felder, R-York, has so far kept the bill stalled in the House. Felder said she is representing the wishes of about 14 constituents, who could end up living in North Carolina under the current bill.

“The ones I’ve spoken to were not fond of having built their home in South Carolina with a S.C. building permit, closed their home with a S.C. realtor, paid taxes to South Carolina, chose school districts in South Carolina only to be told 20 years later and that you may now possibly will be a North Carolina resident,” Felder said Monday.

Felder said she wants a hearing so her constituents can get explanations about how any changes would affect them. Felder made an objection to the proposal that prevented the bill from going to the House floor. The Senate unanimously passed the measure in late April.

“We need an opportunity to allow the people who are impacted to ask questions and get answers,” Felder said.

But bill supporters, including sponsor Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, said the impacts are minimal, given the 333-mile joint border and the thousands of people who live along it.

“It’s a good bill – something we’ve worked on quite a while,” Hayes, the bill’s sponsor, said Monday.

Among the 148 residences and four businesses now in the disputed areas, 12 S.C. residences would wind up in North Carolina; five N.C. residences would be in South Carolina; and 10 residences would be split by the newly-surveyed boundary. One S.C. business would have its property line moved to North Carolina.

No one would have to pay back taxes because of their adjusted status.

Since1994, lawmakers and surveyors in both states have been working to clarify stretches of the border. It’s a difficult task, as many original border markers such as trees have changed or disappeared since the border was first surveyed some 200 years ago. The border stretches from the Atlantic Ocean above North Myrtle Beach in the east to mountainous Oconee County in the west.

A History Channel series, How the States Got Their Shapes, looked at the first Carolina.

Bill supporters say settling the issue now is key.

“Some border areas are getting a lot of development, and if you don’t know what state the land is in, that can affect land titles, insurance and things like that,” Hayes said. Other affected matters include county taxes, drivers’ licenses, utility hook-ups, court jurisdictions, school attendance zones and income taxes, which are different in each state.

“If the issue of the boundary remains unresolved, the societal impacts will probably increase in the future as more development occurs along an indeterminate boundary,” according to a state fact sheet about the boundary process. “The bill also provides closure to residents and business that otherwise might remain in limbo regarding their jurisdictional situation that could possibly cause future legal problems.”

State mapping director Bobby Bowers stressed Monday that the entire 20-year process has been done in a spirit of cooperation with North Carolina. Affected residents have been sent letters, and open, well-publicized hearings have been held, he said.

Surveyors and mapping professionals from both states have been used. Both states each appointed lawmakers to a special joint commission. South Carolina so far has spent $2 million on the process; it was not known Monday how much North Carolina has spent.

“We would have a hearing one year in Rock Hill, and the next in Charlotte,” Bowers said. “We had people at all those hearings. Both states had access to the deal.”

The process to settle the current border issue contrasts with South Carolina’s last border dispute: a 12-year court battle over land boundaries at the mouth of the Savannah River that South Carolina fought with Georgia. That dispute went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and cost the state $10 million in legal fees.

“And that dispute only involved eight miles of border,” Bowers said.

The bill does carve a special exception for one business, a gas station that for years has sold beer, fireworks and gasoline as if it were in South Carolina. Although that business’s property line will now be in North Carolina, in a county where selling fireworks and beer are banned, that business will be grandfathered to allow it to continue selling beer and fireworks, and gasoline with a low S.C. tax on it.

“That man would have gone out of business if we hadn’t done that,” Hayes said.

Felder said she would like to explore whether the residences in her House district are eligible for such special treatment.

“I’m not saying in the end I would not support this legislation, but I am saying there are questions we need answers to,” Felder said. “If I have 14 people who are impacted in my district, how many others are there out there and are they aware of this?”

Rep. Dwight Loftis, R-Greenville, a member of the two-state commission that has worked on the border issue for years, said the relatively few people that would be affected have been notified of any changes that would come to their property. Attorneys generals in both states also have signed off on the agreement.

Written explanations have been sent to the 10 people who would have a property line go through their houses as to exactly which state they will be in, Loftis said. The determining factor was where the bedroom in the house was located, he said. “If you sleep in North Carolina, you’re in North Carolina.”

North Carolina is poised to adopt its own version of the bill, he said, is waiting on South Carolina, Loftis said.

If the bill doesn’t pass in South Carolina, it could be held up in North Carolina for several more years, since that state has a shorter legislative session next year and might not get to it.

“There’s a lot of work that has gone into this for it to be held up now,” Loftis said.

But Felder might have some allies in her push to take more time on the bill.

“Something this big deserves a fair hearing,” said Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington. There probably isn’t enough time left in this year’s Legislative session to hold a hearing, he said, and that would push the bill into next year.

“It’s been this way for a couple hundred years,” Quinn said. “Six more months wouldn’t kill it.”