- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 18, 2014

The exact line where Maryland ends and Virginia begins is a question the likes of George Washington and King Charles I have tussled with. Is the border at the Potomac River’s edge? Maybe the low tide waterline? Or perhaps somewhere in between?

Add Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals to the list of those who have weighed in on the issue. It took on a case that questioned whether river rafters were trespassing on a Maryland company’s property when swimmers exited the water on the Virginia banks. The court upheld the status quo, affirming Maryland’s ownership of the Potomac riverbed, while acknowledging that the border between the states follows the river’s edge despite fluctuations over time in its flow.

In an opinion handed down by a three-judge panel last month, the court ruled that even though the course of the Potomac River changed and exposed once-submerged mud on the Virginia coast — which would have been considered Maryland territory when it was underwater — the newly emerged land belongs to Virginia.

“The question was, if the river shifts, does the boundary shift?” said attorney Charles Bailey, who represented rafting company River & Trail Outfitters. “It was a long, drawn-out process just to affirm what everyone in the region already knew: that the river is the boundary.”

The case was born out of a dispute between Potomac Shores, a corporation that owns land along the Potomac River in Maryland, and rafting companies that run river tours out of an area near Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, where the three states meet. Potomac Shores claimed it also owned a 150-foot strip of land that emerged on the southern side of the Potomac River bank because the river had changed course and exposed the once-submerged area. The site, known as Potomac Wayside, was where the rafting companies ended their tours and rafters exited the river, walking overland to busses that then ferried them back upstream.

The trouble started when the owners of Potomac Shores began trying to charge the river rafting companies $2 a head for each customer who exited the river over the strip of land, Mr. Bailey said.

“They were trying to get some money out of them to use the property,” said attorney David Skeen, who represented another rafting company, River Riders.

The companies refused to pay up, and in 2011 Potomac Shores filed a lawsuit. The corporation cited a deed dating back to 1873 that states the boundary line of its property was the dividing line between Maryland and Virginia “bounding the south shore of the Potomac River at medium water mark.”

Bradford Webb, attorney for Potomac Shores, said neither he nor his client would comment on the case. He declined to say whether the company plans to appeal the ruling.

Land disputes are a common source of friction between states, with some dating back hundreds of years. The Supreme Court holds the authority to rule on state boundary disputes, though in cases that involve disagreements raised by private parties, local courts may exercise jurisdiction.

Border quarrels involving Maryland and Virginia date back to the time they were British colonies, with King Charles I granting the Potomac River to Maryland in 1632 and setting the stage for centuries of squabbles over access rights. In 1785 George Washington helped broker an agreement that settled navigation and access issues involving the states but never defined the exact boundary.

As recently as 2003, the Supreme Court was asked to weigh in, granting Virginia a victory when it ruled the state had the right to draw drinking water from the Potomac.

Across the country, strange tales of state border disputes abound.

Iowa and Missouri fought the bloodless but tense “Honey War” in the 1840s before agreeing on a border. The war was so named because tax collectors from Missouri chopped down three beehives filled with honey on disputed land as revenue before they were chased away by pitchfork-wielding Iowans.

Meanwhile, a recent effort to precisely map and clarify the boundary line between North and South Carolina has upset residents caught in the middle. About 90 properties and 50 residences were determined to be in a different state practically overnight, and lawmakers are still working out the details on how to handle the situation.

Attorneys for the rafting companies in the Potomac River case say that, had they lost, severe repercussions could have followed for anyone with waterfront property.

“For the court to have held otherwise, that would mean that there would be a strip of Maryland between Virginia and the river,” Mr. Bailey said. “I think Virginians would go into a shooting war after that.”


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