By Lee Shearer | firstname.lastname@example.org | Story updated at 11:20 PM on Monday, March 3, 2008
When Georgia legislators moved to redraw the border with Tennessee last week, they launched a doomed and costly waste of taxpayer money, say professionals and researchers in the arcane field of state boundaries and surveying.
The long-held legal principle is simple, said border expert Louis DeVorsey: The decisive fact is not where surveyors meant to draw the line - it's where people have accepted the line to be over time.
"It's where people adjusted their lives to," he said.
A retired University of Georgia geography professor, DeVorsey wrote the book on another Georgia border dispute - a court battle between Georgia and South Carolina over the exact line dividing their two states.
Apparently motivated by a thirst for Tennessee River water that flows temptingly close to the state's northern border, Georgia lawmakers have called for a new land survey to put the border where the Peach State lawmakers say it ought to be - on the 35th parallel, about a mile north of where it is now.
The actual state line was drawn in 1818 by a joint Georgia-Tennessee survey team led by UGA surveyor and mathematician James Camak.
The survey team's charge was to go into the mountain wilderness between the two states and mark a line along the 35th parallel, the agreed-upon border between the two states. Traveling in rough mountain territory, the team missed the right spot by a mile, according to modern measurements.
But courts have held over and over again in other border disputes that the line everyone follows over time - not the theoretical one - is the legal border, DeVorsey said.
The Georgia-Tennessee dispute legally is no different than if someone builds a garage partly on a neighbor's land. If the garage sits there for 30 years, a court will not make the garage builder tear it down, he said.
Farris Cadle of Savannah, another author and researcher of boundary history, was less diplomatic.
"The whole thing is stupid," Cadle said.
The legislature's move to annex a slice of Tennessee will just replay what's happened before with a lot less publicity, he said.
"Every 20 or 30 years, some bright legislator that doesn't know the background of this situation ... will say, 'Oh, we're missing out on some of our territory,' " he said.
That lawmaker convinces fellow legislators to appoint a boundary commission and hire lawyers; the lawyers look up court rulings that say the boundary can't be redrawn to suit Georgia and then the border war dies - until the next time, Cadle said.
Like others, Cadle believes Georgia legislators are motivated by a thirst to tap into the water that flows in the Tennessee River, just across the state line - but south of the 35th parallel.
But the effort might backfire, he said.
"It's bad enough they're throwing away taxpayer money. It's going to create bad relations with the people of Tennessee," he said.
Virtually no surveyed state line in the eastern United States - and none of Georgia's - is exactly where it originally was meant to be, Cadle said.
Surveyors back then had crude instruments, had to traverse rugged wilderness on foot or horseback and had to worry about hazards like Indians attacking, he said.
Surveyors did the best they could with the instruments they had, said Greg Spies, a professor at Troy State University in Alabama and an authority on the history of state border lines - especially the Georgia-Tennessee line.
"There was no way - absolutely no way - they could accurately put a parallel of latitude on the ground," Spies said.
Spies wrote a scholarly article on the Camak survey expedition four years ago.
Camak wanted to get better survey instruments before he set out to map the Georgia-Tennessee border, but the expedition began before the tools could be shipped from Europe, Camak wrote in 1826, when the surveying discrepancy was first detected.
The instruments Camak took included a sextant made for nautical use - good enough to get a ship to within a mile of land, but not the best tool for accurate land surveying, Spies said.
But the boundaries Camak and his team drew are the ones legally accepted today, he said.
"All those old surveys like that are in error, if you want to look at it like that, but the boundaries are where they are," he said.
And Georgia will lose the border war of 2008, as well, Spies predicted.
"I'm not a betting man, but I'd just about put money on it," he said.
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 030308