After roughly 20 years of debate, North Carolina legislators are getting close to resolving a border dispute with South Carolina.
The N.C. Senate is scheduled to vote Wednesday on a long-delayed plan to shift the state line in several locations in Gaston and Union counties near Charlotte.
If the proposal passes the Senate – and then wins approval from the N.C. House, the South Carolina Legislature and both states’ governors – 16 South Carolina homeowners will wake up to find themselves in North Carolina on Jan. 1. Three homes in North Carolina would end up south of the border.
“The process has not been perfect, but we have done everything we can to accommodate folks,” said Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Union County Republican who helped negotiate the deal with South Carolina. “We went down to Rock Hill and agreed to sing ‘Kumbaya’ with the two states together.”
The legislation aims to make the transition easier for the residents forced to switch states. Children would be allowed to continue attending public schools in the state where their home was previously located. They would also be eligible for in-state public college and university tuition for the next 10 years. And the properties could still be served by utility companies from their previous state.
But they would need to get new driver’s licenses and start paying taxes to a different county and state.
In addition to the properties switching states, the new border would run through the middle of 54 homes and commercial buildings. Residents in the homes could choose which state they want to live in.
“This legislation has been designed to lessen the hardships on the affected properties,” Tucker said.
The most complicated negotiations center on a single business: The Lake Wylie Mini Mart.
The gas station’s business model depends on its location just inside South Carolina: It can draw North Carolina customers who want to take advantage of South Carolina’s lower fuel taxes and looser fireworks laws to load up on cheap gas and explosives.
The new boundary falls just south of the gas station, putting it in Gaston County, a dry county that doesn’t allow beer sales in unincorporated areas. That’s another draw for the Lake Wylie Mini Mart: York County, S.C., allows beer sales and saves southern Gaston residents a drive into Gastonia.
Without the fireworks, cheap gas and alcohol, the Mini Mart won’t be around long, its owners say.
“We’re just trying to stay in business,” said Lewis Efird of Gastonia-based United Oil of the Carolinas, which owns the property. “For us, there’s a certain expectation when you purchase a property and it’s titled in South Carolina, that it would remain in that state.”
The latest compromise, approved by the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, still moves the Mini Mart into North Carolina. But it would be allowed to continue charging South Carolina’s gas tax rate, and it could still sell fireworks and alcohol.
But there’s a catch: The quirky exceptions to North Carolina law would end whenever the owner sells the property.
“That provision does destroy the resale value of our property,” Efird said. “But if it’s the best fix we can come up with, we’ll take it.”
If leaders from both states sign off on the plan, it will end a border surveying process that began in 1995 when the Carolinas created a Joint Boundary Commission to research and tweak the 334-mile border between them.
The original border was established in the 1700s, but it’s become nebulous over time because it’s based in part on landmarks that no longer exist.
“Rocks were used, trees were used, fence posts were used,” Tucker said. “They’ve been degraded over the years.”
Researchers combed through old records and century-old boundary surveys to determine where the border belongs. That process wrapped up several years ago, but leaders have since been struggling with how to move properties from state to state without causing major headaches.
“I would never have dreamed as a layman how technical and how litigious this would get,” said Tucker, who joined the negotiations after Gov. Pat McCrory was elected and Democratic Party appointees left. “It all came down to lawyers.”
Efird said the Boundary Commission has worked hard to please everyone affected, but he can’t help but wonder why the properties need to switch states at all.
“Nobody was raising a stink” about the border before the process began, he said. “It’s a problem of the state’s own making.”