Arlington County Will Grow

I stumbled across an article in the Washington Business Journal a few days ago, Over the river: Reagan National runway to be shifted into the Potomac. This probably wouldn’t mean much to most people. One of DCA’s notoriously short runways will be adjusted slightly. That’s a good thing from a public safety perspective, however geo-geeks may wonder what that has to do with them. Plenty. The Potomac River defines a border between the District of Columbia and the Commonwealth of Virginia.

View New Arlington Territory in a larger map

Virginia and Maryland began as English colonies long before there was a United States or a District of Columbia. Maryland gained control of the Potomac River through a 1632 Royal Charter from King Charles I to Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore. The river was not shared between the two states; it was completely part of Maryland. The Potomac passed through the new District of Columbia after Virginia and Maryland ceded land for its creation in 1790, and that segment of the river became part of the District. It remained within the territorial boundaries of District even when its former Virginia lands returned to Virginia in the retrocession completed in 1847. Only the former Maryland territory remained within the District, and Maryland’s prior ownership of the river was not in dispute. Maryland’s previously-established ownership of the Potomac within the area conveyed to the District.

Logically one might conclude that land created within DC’s stretch of the Potomac River should become part of the District automatically. That would undoubtedly be true if the District was a State. Article III, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution placed interstate disputes directly with the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. Cases will go straight to the top if two states disagree on a resolution. There have been numerous territorial quarrels over the years, and the Court has ruled repeatedly on matters involving water boundaries. Generally, boundary lines remain the same even when water shifts or new land is created, naturally or artificially, assuming sovereignty has been asserted in a timely manner.

Ellis Island and its weird state boundary

State of New Jersey v. State of New York, 118 S.Ct. 1726 (1998) seemed particularly apropos. The two states agreed in 1834 that Ellis Island would be part of New York and all of the water surrounding the island would become part of New Jersey. That was great when Ellis Island was a speck. New York began to expand the size of the island as it evolved as a processing center for new immigrants arriving in the United States in the late 19th Century. Eventually Ellis Island grew to 27 acres. New Jersey argued that everything except the original plot should belong to New Jersey.

The Supreme Court agreed.

Washington, D.C. license plate
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons in the public domain.

However the District is not a state and it lacks voting representation in the U.S. Congress needed to press its interests. For years, DC license plates have protested this inequity of "taxation without representation." With that, I wondered, would DC get the new land or would Virginia? Loyal 12MC reader "Greg" (known to baristas everywhere as Gerg) researched the statutory underpinnings, and I’m sad to report to my friends in the District that they will get shortchanged again. Actually, a different word came to mind although I like to keep 12MC family friendly so feel free to fill in the blank yourself.

The boundary between the District of Columbia and Virginia was last clarified by an Act of Congress in 1945, 59 Stat. 552 (included within a very large document I don’t recommend you necessarily download). The pertinent section said:

…that whenever said mean high-water mark on the Virginia shore is altered by artificial fills and excavations made by the United States, or by alluvion or erosion, then the boundary shall follow the new mean high-water mark on the Virginia shore as altered.

This was the Act that also placed what was then called simply National Airport within the boundaries of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The future runway shift at the current Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport — since it will be created "by artificial fills and excavations made by the United States" — would seemingly become part of Virginia. That’s they way I interpret it, bearing in mind I’m a purveyor of geo-oddities and not an attorney or legal expert by any stretch of the imagination. Arlington County, Virginia will likely grow in land area by 4.51 acres and the District of Columbia will decrease in water area correspondingly sometime in late 2015.

This will not jeopardize Arlington’s standing as the smallest completely self-governing county in the United States. Mathematically, it takes 640 acres to cover one square mile so a growth of 4.51 acres is only .007 square miles. Currently Arlington stands at 25.97 square miles and the next contender, Broomfield County, Colorado, is at 33.03. They’d have to fill in a hundred times more river to get into Broomfield’s range.

The District of Columbia can take some small solace in knowing that the newly-created land will still have a tenuous connection to DC: the entire airport has a Washington, DC mailing address, even though it’s in Virginia.

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