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Law seeks to find where Michigan begins, Indiana ends

Pushed by its neighbor to the north, Indiana has finally agreed to spend money to find out where the Hoosier state officially begins and Michigan ends.  

A new law signed by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is expected to set into motion a five-year, $1 million effort to retrace the official state line that was set by a federal surveyor in 1827.

Most of the wooden posts used to mark the border have long since decayed and never were replaced, leaving residents along the boundary in somewhat of quandary: They don’t know exactly know where the official state line is.

“People have gone to court just to figure out what state they’re in,” said Jack Owens, a retired Michigan land surveyor who’s spent a decade pushing for the project.

Four years ago, the Indiana General Assembly passed a bill creating the Indiana Michigan Border Commission, and tasked it with redrawing the boundary. Michigan was ready to pass similar legislation, required for the work to begin, until it found out Indiana hadn’t put up any money for the project.

That was rectified this year, when Indiana lawmakers agreed to spend $500,000 to match what Michigan will spend.

Thanks to decades’ worth of historic records, surveyors generally know where the boundary that separates Indiana from Michigan is.

But it’s not precise, which has led to disputes over property lines and concerns about taxation and law enforcement jurisdiction.

Owens remembers a telephone call he got from an attorney representing the victim of a traffic accident along the state border.

“He asked me what state the accident was in,” Owens said.  “I said, ‘I can’t really tell you. We don’t really know where the state line is.’”

History, decay and neglect are to blame.

Chris Marbach, past president of the Indiana Society of Professional Land Surveyors, said the 1827 line, officially set by the federal government 11 years after Indiana became a state, was marked with wooden mile markers carved from the hardwood forests that covered Northern Indiana at the time.

Most of the markers have rotted away and the other landmarks noted by U.S. Deputy Surveyor Eleazer P. Kendrick in his 1827 survey, including swamps and trees, are long gone.

Marbach said the state never replaced the original markers, though other posts were later put into place as property owners and local officials marked off property lines based on what they thought was the 1827 state line.

“But nobody knows if those newer posts were really where they should be,” Marbach said.

Indiana Sen. Carlin Yoder, a Republican from Middlebury, carried the legislation that re-creates the border commission and funds its work. His Senate district butts up against the state line – or may cross over it, depending on what the commission finds.

“It should be just a difference of a few feet,” Yoder said. “But those few feet can matter.”

Mike Shaver, president of Wabash Scientific, a consulting firm that works with local governments on zoning and land-use issues, agrees. He said the commission’s work could result in moving the state line two to 10 feet.

“A few feet can start a border war,” Shaver said.

Marbach concurs: “In some high-end residential developments, a few feet in somebody’s back yard can make big difference.”

It took awhile for Indiana to settle on its northern boundary. In 1805, the line that separated the Indiana and Michigan territories was 10 miles south of where it is now. When Indiana petitioned Congress for statehood in 1816, it wanted to move the line north to get access to Lake Michigan for a port.

Congress approved and on paper, the line was moved. “But in typical government fashion, the actual field work didn’t happen for another 10 years,” Marbach said.

Land surveyors like Marbach and Owens didn’t want to wait this time for the government to step in. They’re part of a group of volunteers who set out a few years ago to locate as many of the original 1827 markers as they could. They’ve found less than dozen of the 105 markers from the 1827 survey.

Along the way, they’ve gathered as much historical information – property records, court documents, other surveyors’ notes – as they could. They hope the information will help the new Indiana Michigan Border Commission, once it gets going, to do its work.

Michigan still has to give its final approval on the project, and governors in both states have to appoint members to the commission before the five-year project can begin.

“We’re glad it will finally get done,” Owens said of the volunteers who’ve been trying to retrace the border on their own. “We’ve been at this for years.”