Survey says: Macon and Jackson call for state help to sort out muddled border

One of life’s great unsolved mysteries will soon be settled thanks to an official survey of the murky border between Jackson and Macon counties.


Property owners straddling the Jackson-Macon county line will no longer have to lay awake at night pondering which side they are really on and to whom they truly owe their allegiances — or their property taxes as the case may be. A formal declaration on their status — be it Jacksonites or Maconians — will be handed down by the N.C. Geodetic Survey within a year or so.

At the behest of Macon County commissioners, Jackson County commissioners this week joined in a request for the state surveyor’s office to delineate the county border once and for all.

Ages ago, the countyline between Jackson and Macon was merely defined as the “ridgeline.” But the old methods of calculating where the ridgeline lies is somewhat circumspect by today’s more sophisticated methods, like laser scans of the earth’s surface, for example. Some old-fashioned digging in property deed books will also be part of the year-long process, however.

Just what’s at stake? For starters, which county does the property owner vote in. If they want to develop their property, are they subject to Jackson’s tougher building regulations or Macon’s looser ones? And ultimately, to whom do they pay their property taxes?

The property tax rate in Jackson and Macon varies only by a few pennies, so it will make little difference in the tax bills for any property owners who switch sides as a result of the survey. And it will likely be a wash from the counties’ perspectives as well.

“We don’t think there is going to be a winner or loser or a lot of swapping back and forth,” Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten said.

Fewer than 10 parcels are likely to swap county affiliations.

So then why do it at all, Commissioner Doug Cody asked when the topic was discussed at a Jackson commissioner meeting this week.

“What is the motivation behind this?” Cody asked. “To me, it is an exercise in futility.”

“From Macon County’s perspective, it would remove the uncertainty,” Wooten answered.

Indeed, Macon County commissioners have been the impetus in the quest for a clearer, less-muddled picture of the county line.

Macon County commissioners had already asked the state Geodetic Survey to perform a survey, but Jackson commissioners had to make a similar request to get the ball rolling.

“We will not work on the county boundary unless both the counties involved request our assistance. We are a neutral party,” explained Gary Thompson with the N.C. Geodetic Survey in Raleigh.

Other than sheer curiosity, it’s not a bad idea to sort out the border from a legal standpoint, Thompson said.

“The purpose is to put back on the ground the legal definition of what the boundary is,” Thompson said.

The state will pick up the tab for the survey, which will largely be conducted by a contracted survey firm. Countyline surveys can run $10,000 to $15,000 on average, according to Thompson.

While the cost won’t come out of county coffers, Cody objected to the survey as an unnecessary.

“I think it is a waste of money. It is not Jackson taxpayer money, but it is someone’s money,” Cody said.

Cody was the only Jackson County commissioner to vote against a resolution calling on the N.C. Geodetic Survey to wade into the fray.

Thompson concurred that very few properties would likely switch sides after the survey. But the request is not exactly an uncommon one. The N.C. Geodetic Survey is actively working on eight countyline surveys involving disputed borders and has also been surveying the state’s border with South Carolina.

A far more rancorous borderline dispute in the mountains played out a few years ago between Swain and Graham counties. Sparring over the county border called into question which county was entitled to tens of thousands in property taxes paid by Tennessee Valley Authority for its hydropower generators at Fontana Dam. The contested border dispute between Swain and Graham even resulted in a civil lawsuit and countersuit, each claiming the other county should pay up for collecting more than its fair share in property taxes all these years.

In Jackson and Macon, figuring out which side of the line a piece of property fell on has been an amicable process. Employees in the mapping, land records and deeds offices would put their heads together, check terrain maps and old deed books and arrive at a consensus.

There is one hiccup surveyors could encounter when ferreting out the natural ridge line between Jackson and Macon. In some areas, the natural terrain has been altered by human development over time.

“In some cases, the ridgeline is gone. It’s been mowed down. There’s houses on it, golf courses on it, lawns on it, development on it,” said Bobby McMahan, the Jackson County tax appraiser.

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