Due to the frequency of their border disputes, the United States can at times seem not so united. The states of Georgia and Tennessee are currently embroiled in a heated conflict over a mile-long strip of land. A dispute between Georgia and South Carolina over several islands reached the Supreme Court, as did a conflict between New Jersey and New York over a landfill near Ellis Island.
Highly inaccurate surveying conducted in the early days of the republic, combined with the natural human tendency to make biased claims to land and other prized commodities, have conspired to make these disputes especially heated. That’s why the states of North and South Carolina should be commended for approaching a border challenge with a minimum of rancor and some collaborative negotiation skills, as described recently by Stephen R. Kelly, a visiting professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, in the New York Times.
Though the states’ off-the-mark borders date back to their first flawed survey as British colonies in 1735, their modern-day dilemma arose in the early 1990s. As it offered to sell the two states land that crossed them both, Duke Energy tried to determine where their border lay. Neither North nor South Carolina was exactly sure.
Having recently endured a $10 million border dispute with the state of Georgia, South Carolina looked for a more collaborative approach to settling the question. In 1993, the two states’ mapping agencies agreed to cooperate to resolve the matter. Together, they used innovative methods to relocate and remark their 334-mile boundary, such as overlaying cutting-edge mapping technology on colonial-era property maps.
Anticipating the disputes that could arise from redrawn map, the states formed a commission that solicited comments from affected landowners. The collected comments are being used to shape legislation aimed at resolving lingering problems, such as the case of the doctor who learned he might actually be practicing medicine not in North Carolina, as he had thought, but in South Carolina—and therefore potentially need a medical license from that state.
The two Carolinas are expected to approve the new boundary surveys and related legislation in 2015. Their careful handling of the border question suggests several guidelines for negotiators who are seeking to avoid hostile and lingering disputes:
1. Think of the money you’d save.
Because disputes often escalate into litigation, they can be far more costly than collaborative negotiation. A South Carolina representative told Kelly that it spent just a fraction of the amount it spent on its 1990 George lawsuit to resolve its North Carolina border.
2. Turn it over to the professionals.
The Carolinas wisely enlisted professional surveyors and other experts to manage the border dilemma, thereby ensuring that those with more partisan agendas wouldn’t be settling thorny fairness issues.
3. Keep interested parties in the loop.
At the same time, legislators and affected citizens were also given a voice in the process. By keeping the process transparent, the states increased the odds that interested parties would view the experts’ decisions as fair.