Homeowners describe both sides of what it's like to live on the border

September 12, 1990|By Robert A. Erlandson

Joe Moss strolls down the driveway from his 1840s farm home in Newark, Del., to check for letters -- at his mailbox in Cecil County, Md.

When Jeanne Benin arrives home from work she enters her driveway through Delaware. Next morning she leaves through the Pennsylvania end. "It's easier to get the mail and make the corner that way," she said.

Before his 18th-century farmhouse became the office for his family's mobile home park, Randolph Merchant, 68, used to sleep in Bethel Township, Pa., and then join the rest of the family for breakfast in Newcastle County, Del.-- without going outdoors.

The Mosses, Benins and Merchants are among an unknown number of families who "live on the line" and whose lives have been complicated by that fact.

They pay taxes to two states, receive such utilities as power, telephone and water service differently from their neighbors, and when it comes to things like building or renovating, they must deal with two bureaucracies.

But for the most part they are good-humored about their situation. "It's a wonderful icebreaker," as Mrs. Benin put it.

In the late 17th century, William Penn and the Duke of Newcastle separated northern Delaware and Pennsylvania by drawing the Great Arc of Delaware in a 12-mile radius from the Duke's seat at New Castle.

Several other surveys made in the early 18th century clarified that boundary and set borders between Delaware and Maryland. The 1763-1767 Mason-Dixon survey established the Maryland-Pennsylvania border.

The Great Arc was resurveyed in 1892 and granite marker No. 17 stands outside the Merchants' house. It is inscribed "D" on one side and "P" on the other, with a line across the top indicating the direction of the boundary.

Mr. Moss has an even earlier stone on his property marked "M" and "P" denoting the demarcation between Maryland and Pennsylvania -- before Delaware became a separate province and later a state.

The Benins' story is a bit different. They chose to build their rancher straddling the Delaware-Pennsylvania line because it looked better on the lot.

"We treated it as a great adventure and ignored the convention of the state border," said Mrs. Benin, an administrator at the University of Delaware.

In the process, Mrs. Benin said, Pennsylvania authorities were easier to deal with than their Delaware counterparts because "fewer people were involved in the decision-making process."

While a good part of their wedge-shaped lot is in Newcastle County, Del., the location of the house put their postal address in Landenberg, in Chester County, Pa. They get their mail through the Newark, Del., post office, however.

"The post office gets concerned because they like to have a place for everyone," Mrs. Benin said. "But the postmaster in Landenberg and the postmaster in Newark are fishing buddies, and I think they've worked it out between them."

The Benins have a Pennsylvania telephone number and receive electricity from the Philadelphia Electric Co., while all their neighbors are serviced by Delaware utilities.

The biggest complications for the Merchants involve Winterset Farm, their mobile-home park. They have completely different leases and landlord-tenant regulations for tenants in the Pennsylvania and Delaware sections, said Mr. Merchant, a retired oil company engineer.

"When tenants who live in the Pennsylvania section give the Delaware address on credit applications they have problems, too," he said. "We're incorporated in Delaware and registered to do business in Pennsylvania."

The park has addresses in both states but uses only the Delaware address now.

His daughter, Susan, who now heads the company, said it has taken eight years to obtain approval for the 84 new lots on the Pennsylvania side now under construction for double-wide trailers.

The farmhouse-office, which dates to 1742, gets electricity from the Philadelphia Electric Co., while the park itself is lighted by the Delmarva Power and Light Co., Ms. Merchant said.

A historical facet of the Merchant property is that during the slave-owning era, Delaware was a slave state while Pennsylvania was free. Early owners of the farm kept slaves and housed them on the Delaware side.

The state line divided the house nearly equally at one point but in resurveys the border was moved so that most of the building was in Delaware, except for what used to be Mr. Merchant's bedroom.

Mr. Moss, an artist, specializes in large-scale, three-dimensional "environmental sound sculptures" made from mathematically shaped steel sheets that create both visual and audio effects. They dot his 4-acre lot -- 1 acre in Maryland and 3 acres in Delaware.

He bought the farm in 1982, but said the line-straddling only became a problem when developers began building the new homes that now surround his place on three sides and which were annexed to the city of Newark, Del.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.