Point of Beginning

Knowing where home is can turn complicated

February 16, 2010
John Harker, a retired elevator constructor, got tired of paying property taxes every year on land he did not use. So he decided last fall to donate much of his 15-acre property, wooded swamps and all, to the local land trust. For his troubles, Harker wound up with two tax bills and a world of bureaucratic confusion about the most basic of facts: what town he actually lives in. 

By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff  |  February 10, 2010

Boston.com: ATTLEBORO/REHOBOTH - John Harker, a retired elevator constructor, got tired of paying property taxes every year on land he did not use. So he decided last fall to donate much of his 15-acre property, wooded swamps and all, to the local land trust.

For his troubles, Harker wound up with two tax bills and a world of bureaucratic confusion about the most basic of facts: what town he actually lives in.

After two decades as a loyal resident of Rehoboth, a small, quiet suburb, the 67-year-old was startled when a new land survey determined that his century-old house on Agricultural Avenue actually sits just over the town line in Attleboro, a city of 42,000 on the Rhode Island border.

Never mind that he had long paid taxes in Rehoboth, or that his granddaughter, who lives in the house with Harker’s son, attends third grade at a local grade school. Never mind the roadside granite post right near his front porch that appears to place him squarely in Rehoboth. As it turned out, that sign was about 200 feet off the mark.

“I wanted to do something good,’’ the elder Harker, 67, said wistfully of his land donation. “But all it’s been since has been a big pain in the rear.’’

The confusion brings to vivid reality the occasionally imprecise nature of boundaries in New England, where town lines were often drawn and surveyed more than a century ago and remain blurry to this day.

In this case, Rehoboth has long based its contours on an obsolete map from 1795, unaware that the Legislature changed the border at some point over the next six decades.

Over the years, the correct border was confirmed by numerous other surveys and took hold in the official record, in dusty archives and electronic databases. But it never changed the reality on the ground, and everything from house numbers to roadwork responsibilities hewed to the old line.

“Everything after 1850 is very consistent, except for the Rehoboth assessors’ map,’’ said E. Otis Dyer Jr., the land surveyor who discovered that Harker’s house had been placed on the wrong side of the line.

To read the rest of the story, click to www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2010/02/10/knowing_where_home_is_can_get_complicated?mode=PF.