District streets that border states create jurisdictional confusion

By Karen Tanner Allen
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 29, 2010

Many locals don't know exactly where the District ends and Maryland begins. Even some who live along the border aren't sure.

Several months after he moved into a bungalow on Eastern Avenue in Takoma Park in 1978, Ray Altevogt was surprised to discover that part of his ostensibly Maryland-side sidewalk lies in the District. A gas line serving his house was replaced, and then the sidewalk needed repair, too.

"That's when I called Takoma Park and realized that my house was in Maryland but the sidewalk and part of the property were in D.C.," Altevogt said.

Those who live along the Maryland-District line learn to adapt to some unusual jurisdictional confusion. This is due in part to a common misconception that the border runs down the middle of three District boundary streets: Western, Eastern and Southern avenues. In fact, the District controls all three roads and several feet on the Maryland side -- occasionally right up to a house.

Questions arise when it comes time to repair a sidewalk, widen a driveway or plant a tree. On-street parking regulations can seem one-sided. Police and fire dispatchers may re-route calls. Taxi drivers and passengers have argued over rates for crossing state lines, especially before the District's zone-fare system was changed to meters in 2008. Some rules apply to one side of the street but not the other.

Altevogt, 69, remembers that when his car was rear-ended as he pulled out of his driveway, a passing D.C. patrol car refused to take a report, saying that the driver was in Maryland. And it annoys him that tenants of the apartments opposite his house are allowed extended parking on the D.C. street but that he has to park in his driveway because his cars have Maryland tags.

Overall, though, Altevogt considers his location more a curiosity than a problem. "It's just sort of something I mention often to people," he said. He sometimes signs his address on neighborhood Internet mailing lists as "on the Washington, DC/Maryland line" and is outspoken about the need for police cooperation and other cross-jurisdictional issues between Takoma Park, Md., and the Takoma neighborhood in the District.

"Living on the coast" is how Rick Toye likes to describe his home on Eastern Avenue, in the District's Shepherd Park neighborhood, where he has lived for 15 years. He and his wife, Bernadine, raised four children in their house, in the middle of more than a dozen homes that face apartment buildings in Silver Spring.

They enjoy ties to their Shepherd Park community, along with access to Maryland conveniences.

"Up here, you've got a little of everything," said Toye, 60, a mortgage broker and retired Army colonel. "We can walk to the subway. We can walk to the grocery store. We can walk to the Chinese restaurant. . . . I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Drawing the lines

Nationwide, there are many examples of neighborhoods that straddle municipalities, but few in which people live across the street from neighbors in a different state, said Mark Stein, author of "How the States Got Their Shapes," a 2008 HarperCollins book. Stein grew up in Maryland and lives in the District, a few blocks from Western Avenue.

In the Colonial era and early years of the country, state lines often followed mountain crests and rivers. Railroads changed that by reducing the need to use rivers as commercial corridors, enabling Congress to stipulate straight-line borders with increasing frequency as the United States expanded westward, Stein said.

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