After over a decade of disagreement, back and forth, and multiple attempts to work out the county line dispute between Guilford County and Alamance County, officials in both counties may have finally come to an agreement: They may just agree to disagree until the end of time and let the line between Guilford County and Alamance County continue to be in the mind of the beholder.
North Carolina and South Carolina just settled a dispute over the state line, a disagreement that in that case went back to the 1700s.
Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning said this week that he’s simply tired of dealing with the issue. He said it has been an intractable problem since before he became a commissioner in 2012 and, at this point, Henning said, he doesn’t see any resolution; and frankly, he added, he questions if it’s even worth the effort to continue to discuss it.
“If staff asked us to meet to reconsider the issue, I would say that I’m not even going to the meeting,” Henning said. “We tried in good faith to address it.”
An exasperated Commissioner Ray Trapp said he’s also fed up with the issue and that no one even mentions it anymore. He said that since he joined the board as a commissioner nearly four years ago, two things that have been constantly discussed but never worked out are a new Emergency Services maintenance facility – something else also in the works for over a decade – and the county line dispute.
Throughout much of 2013, the commissioners debated whether to enforce the real county line or adopt a modified version that gave property owners who lived near the line the right to choose their county.
“I don’t care anymore,” Trapp said of the outcome. “Let’s figure it out and move on.”
The problem arose largely over the last century as boundary markers were moved or destroyed, property changed hands along the line, and, in some cases, property owners and others became confused about where the true county line lay – or perhaps they feigned ignorance. So some residents who were in Guilford County ended up paying property taxes to Alamance County and sending their kids to schools there as well as using other services provided by that county. In a fewer set of cases, others who were actually in Alamance County believed they lived in Guilford County and acted accordingly. About eight years ago the State of North Carolina conducted a survey and once again everyone knew where the line was, but residents didn’t want to “change” counties. That line established by state surveyors is now called the “geodetic” line.
Alamance County commissioners wanted to draw a new county line based on the wishes of property owners in the disputed area – what’s called the “zigzag” approach. Eventually, the Guilford County commissioners agreed to go along with that solution. However, when it became evident that doing so would mean a wholesale exit of property owners with their property to Alamance County and its lower tax rate – 58 cents for each $100 of property compared to Guilford County’s rate of 75.5 cents – the Guilford County commissioners reversed their previous decision. The Guilford County Board of Commissioners later requested that state officials reestablish the county line delineated by surveyors. However, that move has gone nowhere.
State legislators have been concerned with passing a budget, revising House Bill 2, and other issues – but one thing they have no interest in right now is the county line dispute between Guilford County and Alamance County.
State Rep. Jon Hardister from Greensboro said the matter simply isn’t being discussed at the state level.
“I haven’t heard anything about that lately,” Hardister said. “I don’t think there will be any movement on that this year.”
Hardister made that comment before the session adjourned last Friday, and since the legislature is now adjourned for the year, he turned out to be right.
Alamance County officials like the current set-up just fine as it is because that county is still taxing and getting money from Guilford County citizens – while Guilford County is no longer taxing any Alamance County residents. Also, property owners on the line aren’t making noise about the current arrangement because those in the disputed areas have the option of paying taxes to whichever county they like (Read: Alamance County). Guilford County hasn’t been forcing that issue because several years ago the boards of commissioners in the two counties came to an agreement to work with the parties in the disputed areas until the matter is resolved.
And, as for the Guilford County commissioners and other county officials, well, they’re just tired of dealing with it after more than a decade of negotiations.
The Guilford County commissioners haven’t mentioned the problem once at any meeting or work session in 2016, and the Alamance County commissioners also don’t seem to want to do anything about the matter. And state legislators want the two counties to reach an agreement to make any state action easy and non-controversial rather than difficult and heated. The line is where it is and state officials know where the line is, but if the two counties worked the issue out among themselves then residents not happy with the solution would be upset with their commissioners rather than state legislators.
Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis said that his department has “released” all Alamance County residents from Guilford County’s tax roles and it no longer attempts to collect taxes from those who legitimately live in Alamance County.
“We know where the line is,” Chavis said.
He said the state survey, which used modern equipment and the most up-to-date surveying techniques, determined exactly where that line is.
Chavis said the current situation isn’t a good one even though some people seem happy with it.
“Anytime you leave something in limbo, it’s not good.” Chavis said.
He added that Guilford County has made an official request to the state to reestablish the line and added that’s where the county currently stands on the issue.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said state legislatures have been hoping the two counties could work out something out.
“I think they want unanimous agreement between Guilford County and Alamance County, and it doesn’t appear as though that’s happening,” Payne said.
He said Guilford County sent a letter about a year-and-a-half ago to the state delegation on the matter. That letter requested that the state reestablish the proper line.
Payne said that, in the meantime, county officials have been “doing the best we can” to work through any disputes regarding who should go to school where or which planning department a resident should use.
“Nothing is any more solved than it was before,” the county attorney said.
For over a decade, county staff, residents and others have talked about how important it is to fix the problem – however, for the past two years, the new normal in the debate seems to be to let sleeping dogs lie. Alamance County still wants the zigzag line that would let owners choose what county they reside in, and a few years ago Alamance County worked out a similar county line dispute with Orange County, on Alamance’s eastern border, by adopting a county line full of as many twists and turns as Sleuth. That made many residents along that line happy but some Alamance County officials have said it’s a crazy solution that has created a logistical nightmare. Former Alamance County Commissioner Tim Sutton said repeatedly that the line Alamance County now has on its eastern border is one of the most absurd things he’s every seen in his life. He said it makes no sense as it weaves its way down cul-de-sacs and streets and said it will leave everyone confused for years and years to come.
However, Guilford County commissioners continue to be dead set against that these days.
“The zigzag line is silly season,” Henning said.
Alamance County Tax Administrator Jeremy Akins said his department sends out tax bills to those on the Alamance County side of the geodetic line as well as to those “who have historically been taxed by Alamance County.”
He said that practice would continue until the dispute between the two counties is resolved.
He also said that, to the best of his knowledge, there’s no connection between where a resident pays taxes and where he or she receives services.
“The payment is separate for the time being,” he said.
According to Akins, if a property owner on the Guilford County side of the line requests a tax release to Guilford County, that request is granted.
Of course, virtually no one who has a choice wants to be in Guilford County with its higher tax rate.
He said the current dispute does have drawbacks for property owners. For instance, he said, if they get a bill from one county but pay taxes in the other, it puts them in an “unpaid but not delinquent” category, and, while the property owners won’t be penalized by either county if they paid taxes in one, in some cases banks or other financial institutions might see it as a problem and withhold credit or charge a higher rate because they have a bill that hasn’t been paid.
Akins said in some cases property owners have gone ahead and paid both bills to make certain that type of problem doesn’t arise.
He also said that until a decision is made by the two counties or the state the current situation will remain.
“It is still disputed territory,” he said. “There’s an impasse at this point and there has not been a conclusion.”
One thing to be thankful for is that at least new subdivisions being built along the line are being deeded on the correct side of the geodetic line.