It only took about a century or so, but thanks to a recent unanimous vote by the Alamance County Board of Commissioners, Guilford and Alamance counties are finally on the path to resolving the county line dispute that has created constant problems for years.
There have been about ten years of on-again, off-again negotiations over what should happen with the county line: Should it be straight, as the state originally intended, or should it be a “zigzag” line as many property owners wanted?
The Alamance County commissioners answered that question on Monday, Nov. 20 with a 5-to-0 vote to adopt a straight line.
There’s no need for the Guilford County Board of Commissioners to vote on the matter because that board has already done so: In February 2014, the Guilford County commissioners voted 9 to 0 to adopt a straight line; however, nothing much happened after that vote because Alamance County continued to push for a zigzag line that allowed property owners who live near the line to decide for themselves what county they should be in.
The matter has lingered for years with residents paying taxes, going to school and voting in the county that they either thought they were in or simply wanted to be in. A series of handshake deals and informal agreements between the tax directors and other department heads in the two counties allowed those residents to do so.
Alamance County Commissioner Bob Byrd said this week that several considerations led to the new decision by the Alamance board to go along with the straight line Guilford County officials have wanted to see for years. Byrd said the ongoing ambiguity about who lives where has been causing problems for homeowners along the line as well as for builders developing property along the line.
He said recent legislation from the North Carolina General Assembly meant that the state would bear some of the expense – such as surveying costs for individual properties – of the reestablishment of the original line. Those costs would have fallen on property owners otherwise. In 2007, state surveyors traced the county line with modern equipment and GPS mapping techniques and left no doubt where the original “geodetic” line lay. However, even though people knew from that point on which county they lived in, some kept on living as though they were in their preferred county.
Byrd said opposition to the straight line from residents who live along the county line had been dying down in recent years. He said that, several years ago, when the issue came up at a board meeting, many residents showed up and spoke vehemently against the Alamance commissioners agreeing to recognize a straight line.
That opposition came overwhelmingly from residents along the county line who didn’t want to vote, go to school and, especially, pay taxes in Guilford County, which has a much higher tax rate. In Guilford County, the current tax rate is 73.05 cents per $100 of assessed property value while in Alamance County it’s 58 cents per $100.
Byrd said residents didn’t voice any opposition before the Nov. 20 vote.
“Nobody spoke and it was publicized in the Burlington Times-News,” he said, adding that notices were published elsewhere as well.
He said citizens knew that proposal was being addressed at that meeting but didn’t come out to object.
Byrd, the only Democrat on the Alamance County board that has four Republican commissioners, also said that, in recent years, more and more problems were showing up and biting those who live near the line. For instance, he said, he talked to a homeowner who was trying refinance her house and couldn’t get it done. He said that refinancing attempt was “in limbo” due to the question over which county the property was in.
According to Byrd, some commissioners and others who would have preferred a crooked line to accommodate homeowners were just tired of the uncertainty that had been ongoing for as long as anyone could remember.
“I voted for the straight line – the geodetic line – because having it resolved was better than not having it resolved,” he said.
He added that he wasn’t “married” to the idea of a straight line, but, in the end, he said, practical considerations meant some final resolution had to be reached.
“It just makes it clear where residents will get fire services, sheriff’s department services, EMS – and where they will vote and pay taxes,” he said of the vote by the Alamance County commissioners.
Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said that, with no push or other involvement from Guilford County, the General Assembly passed new legislation to help address these types of border disputes across the state.
“They passed a generic bill,” Payne said. “It said, ‘Here is the mechanism for addressing that.’”
He said the legislation essentially “took off the table” the option of creating a crooked line that catered to the desires of the residents.
Payne said one good thing is that the two counties have done a good deal of work over the years attempting to smooth the transition for those property owners who will be “changing” counties. For instance, there have been detailed discussions between the two counties as to when a student will be allowed to finish school at the junior high or high school they are attending, even if their home is in determined to be in the other county.
Byrd said that type of accommodation is also being planned for in Alamance County as well, but he added that the Alamance County Board of Education will have to vote to approve changes regarding who goes to school where.
Payne said he’d been in consultation with Alamance County Attorney Clyde Albright to determine how to proceed on all matters related to the county line transition.
Likewise, the two tax departments are working out details of the new arrangement. Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis is currently trying to discern the revenue implications.
“We have not gone through the process yet of splitting these properties and valuing them to see what the financial outcome will be,” Chavis said. “That will come later.”
Chavis said his concern right now is in getting the properties mapped correctly, based on the NC geodetic line.
Chavis added that he’s really ready to get this issue wrapped up once and for all.
“I’d love to see this happen in 2018,” the tax director said.
Though the problem has been lingering for decades, the debate in its most recent form began when former Guilford County Tax Director Jenks Crayton, who died earlier this year, brought the matter to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners attention about 12 years ago. Crayton and other county staff spoke about the need to address this issue since more development was on the way and the problem would only get worse. That slideshow contrasted pictures of cow pastures and wooded areas that have dominated the line in the past, with photos of new construction along the line.
Chavis said that, one of the first steps from this point, will be state surveyors notifying residents which area they live in.
He also said Guilford County has some concerns about the Rockingham County line, but those problems aren’t as well known as the problems related to the Alamance County line.
“Eventually we need to do something on it,” he said of hazy line the county now shares with Rockingham County.
According to Chavis, one step would no doubt be a new survey of that line to clear up any confusion as to where the line is. That matter will be dealt with after the Alamance County line stops taking all of the attention.
The state drew a perfectly straight line between Guilford County and Alamance County when Alamance County was founded in 1849. Though that line was laid out and marked at that time, over the years line markers were moved or destroyed and, for various reasons, people lost track of the true line. Also, when the original line was surveyed, surveyors made mistakes and the intended straight line wasn’t laid out perfectly to begin with.
In 2012, the Guilford County commissioners voted to go along with Alamance County’s effort to create a new zigzag county line with residents who lived very close to the line deciding which county to live in. But the Guilford County commissioners later didn’t like the fact that 61 property owners elected to go into Alamance County and not one wanted to be in to Guilford County.
At that time, it was estimated that Guilford County would lose about $8.5 million of property tax value, which would have meant about $65,000 annually in tax revenue for Guilford County. That same property would generate about $45,000 each year in tax revenue for Alamance County.