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Unceremoniously marked 278 years ago with a stone here or a notch on a tree there, King George's boundaries leave a portion of Fred Berlinger's Polk County home in South Carolina.

A 278-year-old error over the N.C.–S.C. border is riling residents 

Can't we be just one happy Carolina? Thomas G. Bradford 1835 map, from "A Comprehensive Atlas: Geographical, Historical & Commercial"

Can't we be just one happy Carolina? Thomas G. Bradford 1835 map, from "A Comprehensive Atlas: Geographical, Historical & Commercial"

Fred Berlinger has a message for King George II, the long-dead English monarch whose 18th-century vision for the border between North Carolina and South Carolina is wreaking havoc on Berlinger's Polk County home.

"Have you ever heard of the Revolutionary War?" says Berlinger, who lives in southwestern North Carolina—or did. "In that war, which we won, we told King George [III] to stick it in his ear."

Berlinger is fuming because the states' 15-year effort to firm up George's boundaries—unceremoniously marked 278 years ago with a stone here or a notch on a tree there—leaves a portion of Berlinger's home in South Carolina.

According to state officials, Berlinger is one of 125 property owners impacted by the newly enforced state lines, which in some cases are sliding a matter of yards to the north or the south.

N.C. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Julia Jarema, who handles communications for the joint commission, says no state lines are actually changing. Rather, the Carolinas are enforcing borders that have, over the years, been improperly observed by counties in both states.

In some cases, Jarema says the faulty boundaries were off by a matter of a few yards. In others, county lines leave a gap of territory unclaimed by either state.

"There are a lot of legalities involved that they are trying to work through between the states," Jarema says.

The mysterious 12-member Joint Boundary Commission, including staff and lawmakers from both states, is behind the work. The group met Friday in Charlotte, but the commission has no central website and no membership roster available online for the public. No meeting minutes are accessible online for the public, and Jarema says there is no video of the commission's work, which has been ongoing since 1999.

Members include Gary Thompson, a North Carolina surveyor; Sen. Dan Clodfelter, an eight-term Democrat from Mecklenburg County; and former state Rep. Mitch Gillespie, a McDowell County Republican who is now the state's assistant secretary for the environment.

Furthermore, members are reluctant to talk about their proceedings. Clodfelter did not return phone calls this week.

Thompson and Gillespie declined to offer specifics on the commission's discussions, which were scheduled last week to include topics such as minimizing the impacts on property owners such as Berlinger. The topic is set to be discussed again when the commission meets this fall.

"It's nothing I can talk about," says Gillespie, a member of the joint commission for 15 years.

The commission's murky work is no small matter for property owners such as Berlinger. The semi-retired doctor says he must now get a South Carolina driver's license. He must vote in a different state and for different representatives. Plus, Berlinger is worried his North Carolina medical license is in jeopardy.

Other residents will see their children shuttled into new school districts.

"It's an unbelievable change that somebody at the age of 76 really doesn't want to go through," he says. "But nobody's asked for my opinion."

The newly enforced borders spell trouble for businesses as well. North Carolina taxes and regulations could force at least one South Carolina convenience store to raise its fuel prices and scuttle lucrative fireworks sales.

Thompson says the work was pushed by lingering uncertainty over the state lines. "Over time, the evidence of the lines was lost, and local governments used the best available information they had to note where the county and state boundary was," he says. "The purpose is to re-establish that so it won't happen in the future."

Thompson says the commission could wrap its work in 2014. In South Carolina, the boundaries must be accepted by state lawmakers. In North Carolina, they must have the approval of the governor, Jarema says.

But Gillespie says much work, including additional land surveying, remains. "It could take 10 years," he says. "Who knows? Things could happen to make it go even longer. It's a grueling process. It's been going on since 1735, but the end is in sight."

Ohio and Michigan once amassed militias over a border dispute in the 19th century. California and Nevada waged legal warfare in 1980, taking their boundary dispute as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.

Both Gillespie and Thompson say that won't be necessary here. Much of the states' borders—aside from the Lake Wylie area just south of Charlotte—cross rural, relatively undeveloped areas. Also, commission members are of one mind on the matter, Gillespie says: "There's never been any kind of divisive issue whatsoever."

If there is no controversy, Berlinger did not get the message. He says he has hired an attorney to help him combat the state lines. He says it should be his choice to remain a North Carolinian.

"If we've lived this way for 200 years, why in heck's name would you want to change it now?" he says. "Nobody's given me an answer on that."

This article appeared in print with the headline "A sad state of affairs."

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