KELLY: How the Carolinas Fixed Their Blurred Lines

Border disputes between American states are as old as the republic, but in today’s highly charged political atmosphere they often take an ugly turn.

Georgia and Tennessee, to cite the loudest current example, are trading insults and ultimatums over a strip of land barely a mile wide. In 1990 Georgia marched South Carolina to the Supreme Court over a handful of islands in the Savannah River (South Carolina prevailed). New Jersey did the same to New York a few years later over landfill around Ellis Island. When New Jersey won, Rudolph W. Giuliani, then the mayor of New York City, quipped, “It must have been a fix.”

So it may come as a surprise that North and South Carolina, two states better known for philandering politicians and restrictive voter ID laws than progressive politics, are quietly collaborating on an enormous undertaking to re-mark their misplaced 334-mile common boundary.

Their two-decade effort is not complete, and the fate of a gas station whose pumps have surfaced in the “wrong” state could derail the whole thing. But if they succeed, they might well set an example of comity and cooperation for the rest of our head-butting nation.

To appreciate the heroic dimensions of the states’ border challenge, you have to go back 280 years and look at the mess they inherited.

When the two Carolinas were created as separate British colonies, they were supposed to be split by two simple straight lines: one running northwest from the Atlantic Coast to the 35th Parallel, the other following the 35th due west to the “South Seas.” But making the territory resemble the map wasn’t so easy.

The original 1735 survey party, for example, had members who sometimes didn’t show up, sometimes didn’t get paid and often gave up while trudging through the ghastly swamps and wilderness they encountered on their way up from the coast. That may explain why they failed to reach their target, the 35th Parallel, after two years of effort: Instead, they drove a stake into the ground 12 miles too far to the south, and went home.

Another party, sent out in 1764 to continue the survey, headed west from that same erroneous stake, despite explicit orders from King George III to verify that the first surveyors had indeed reached the 35th Parallel. By the time they detected their error, 64 miles later, they had shaved 422,000 acres off what was supposed to be South Carolina. Subsequent efforts to compensate South Carolina by continuing the westward line slightly north of the 35th Parallel were similarly jinxed, this time by a compass-deflecting magnetic anomaly west of present-day Charlotte, N.C., that skewed the boundary slightly northwest, carving thousands of acres out of what was supposed to be North Carolina.

This was the boundary that confronted the Carolinas in the early 1990s, when Duke Energy offered to sell the two states land that straddled both of them. The utility asked the not unreasonable question of exactly where the boundary ran. The trouble was, the notched trees the original surveyors had used to mark the boundary were long gone.  Neither state knew exactly where it was.

The default response these days to situations like this is usually conflict, which can be costly. The legal bill for South Carolina’s defense against Georgia, for example, topped $10 million, and so traumatized South Carolina officials that they looked for a peaceful way to find the missing border with North Carolina.

In 1993 the two states’ mapping agencies pledged to cooperate, harnessing geospatial technology to old-fashioned detective work. In one border segment near Charlotte, they unearthed colonial-era property maps that had used the boundary trees as tract corners and overlaid Geographic Information System data — mapping technology accurate within inches — to calculate where the trees once stood.

In another segment, researchers found a stone boundary monument that had been set as part of a 1928 resurvey, except it now stood near a tee on a golf course. Officials at the course had moved it years before so duffers could brag about their two-state tee shot. Using the original 1928 maps, advanced mathematics and some informed guesswork, the joint survey teams navigated to the exact spot where the monument had been uprooted, and even found its broken-off base.

By 2013, the entire 334-mile boundary had been relocated and re-marked. Unfortunately, it was not always where people had thought it was. Some residents living near the boundary discovered that their homes were in fact in a different state. A North Carolina doctor discovered that the room in his home where he sometimes saw patients was in fact in South Carolina, and worried he would have to get a South Carolina medical license.

Fortunately, the two states had seen this coming, and the Joint Boundary Commission they formed to oversee the surveying began to catalog potential negative impacts. The commission sent letters and aerial photos to 173 landowners warning that their lives — and sometimes their addresses — could change, and asked for comments. Those comments are being used to shape legislation that should solve most of the resulting problems.

But an obvious fix is not in sight for Lewis Efird, who bought a gas station just south of what he thought was the state line in the early 1990s to take advantage of South Carolina’s significantly lower gas tax, as well as the ability to sell beer and fireworks. Unfortunately, the survey work showed conclusively that his pumps were in a part of North Carolina where gas is more expensive, beer sales are not allowed and fireworks are illegal. As he told commissioners in a public meeting, “Our business is going to be destroyed.”

The two states are expected to approve the boundary surveys and  remedial legislation early in 2015, assuming they can solve Mr. Efird’s problem — several lawmakers have expressed concern over hurting a prominent small business. Whatever happens, the experience offers a potential model for interstate cooperation.

The Carolinas have shown that cooperation is cheaper than litigation. Sidney C. Miller, the boundary commission’s co-chairman from South Carolina, said 20 years of boundary resurveying had cost his state just a fraction of the bills from the 1990 Georgia lawsuit, not to mention lower levels of stress and vitriol.

Their experiment has also worked because it was handled by professional surveyors and other experts, kept legislators in the loop and involved affected citizens. Not all of them will be happy, but the public-hearing schedule, as well as a legislative-approval requirement, has kept the process transparent and minimized political intrigues.

Clearly, when you let able professionals handle complex problems and offer science-based solutions to well-informed politicians, anything is possible, even in 21st-century America.

Stephen R. Kelly is a visiting professor of the practice of public policy.  This commentary was originally published by The New York Times on August 23, 2014.