COLUMBIA — After 15 years of paying property taxes to Cherokee County, Page Lee was surprised to get a tax bill last year from neighboring Spartanburg County.
Spartanburg County officials said their computerized mapping system showed Lee’s 7,000-square-foot house actually was in their county, not Cherokee. So instead of owing $4,000 in property taxes to Cherokee County, she now owed $8,000 to Spartanburg.
A year and a half later, Lee is no closer to resolving her official address or where she should send her taxes. And as South Carolina nears the resolution of a years-long border dispute with North Carolina, some say the state now should turn its attention to determining where county borders within the state actually are.
In Lee’s case, the confusion over county lines stems from the fact that Cherokee County’s Spartanburg boundary is set by state law with language like this: “beginning at a stake in the road in State line on top of mountain at Burned Grocery and running thence S. 43.5 degrees W. 224 chains to a large pine at northeast end of Brown Mountain.”
Lee isn’t alone.
County boundaries are unclear across the state, resulting in occasional jurisdictional flare-ups.
Five thousand miles of borders separate South Carolina’s 46 counties. About half of those boundaries are set by waterways.
But the other half were set more than 100 years ago using as landmarks boundaries that included rocks, trees and, in the case of Spartanburg County, “a dead Spanish Oak below Head’s Ford.”
Long history of disputes
“If you read the narrative description in the code, there is no way to map them,” said Bobby Bowers, director of the Office of Research and Statistics with the state Budget and Control Board. “It’s a hodgepodge of problems, I can tell you.”
Another one of those problems surfaced earlier this year, when Kim Murphy was ousted from the school board of Lexington-Richland School District 5 because her home was discovered to be in Lexington County, not in the Richland County district that she was elected to represent.
But the problem is not limited to counties.
For decades, South Carolina and Georgia fought in court over where – in the Savannah River – their border was, a dispute that led to a Supreme Court ruling in 1990.
More recently, lawmakers from North and South Carolina have worked to re-establish the border between the two Carolinas. It’s a painstaking process that involved scavenging for old deeds in forgotten drawers of county courthouses, and then searching for old trees and stones that marked the original border.
After 12 years, the South Carolina/North Carolina Joint Boundary Commission has finished its technical work, resulting in about 100 people discovering they don’t live in the state where they thought they lived.
Now, the S.C. Attorney General’s Office is working on legislation that would alleviate some of the potential problems of moving property and citizens back and forth between the Carolinas, such as owing years of back taxes. The state General Assembly is expected to debate the legislation beginning in January.
Next frontier: County lines?
Some state lawmakers say the state also should make it a priority to clarify the county borders.
“It’s hard to go back and change it once areas have been developed along the border,” said state Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York, a member of the joint state border commission. “As the state gets larger and the population spreads out, it will be tougher and tougher to get it done later.”
State research director Bowers says it would “take years and dollars and dollars” to clarify county borders. If so, any state resolution of disputed county boundaries likely would come too late to help Lee, who lives in Cherokee – or Spartanburg – County.
Lee still has not paid the property tax bill that she received from Spartanburg County. If the dispute over which county she lives in is not resolved by October, she says she likely will have to file a lawsuit.
“I know where the line is,” said Lee, adding that the property has been in her husband’s family since 1787. “But I’m having a terrible time trying to get any kind of validation ... because of this mapping thing.”
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.