The Gas Station With A Secret Superpower
There's a regular-looking BP out there that is not what it seems to be.
I am going to rant about OUR UNNECESSARY FIXATION ON GAS PRICES for a moment
I sort of understand the obsession with gas prices. With apologies to people who closely monitor their finances or work on spreadsheets with dollar signs all day, you SORT OF know what most things cost. Sometimes you’ll snap to attention whenever you read a headline or start to shop for something specific. Whoa! you’ll think, occasionally. Home prices are crazy! But unless you are a real estate agent or are in the market for a house right this very minute, you are not monitoring the prices of several homes down to the cent. To that end, you might have a sense that the price of milk has gone up, but for most of us, it’s more of a vibe. I think I used to pay less for this, you wonder as you’re looking for the carton with an expiration date that’s the furthest from now.
Gas is different! We’re usually exposed to its price once, if not several times a day. It happens while we drive, which is a wholly boring if not soul-sucking activity. Gas prices command our attention because we have nothing better to do than to stare at their giant, intimidating numbers as we roll past. Then, still mostly bored, we perform a regression analysis based on the other stations we’ve driven past over the last few days. Gas has always been priced by the gallon, so we have a consistent benchmark with the past (nobody’s selling it by the half-gallon!). It always feels like it used to be cheaper. Its cost is subconsciously bored into our brains every day. Hence, we are incredibly prickly about minor changes in price. You know this is true. Ask yourself: Have you ever seen anyone blame the President of the United States for a change in the price of creamed corn? No. No you have not.
If I can put my economist hat on for a moment: People should not care this much about gas prices. For one thing, you have the car you currently have. You can buy a car that gets better gas mileage (or an electric car!) if you want to do something about it. But that is hard, because cars are expensive and buying them can suck. You can drive less, but that requires at the very least some strategic planning, and the most a potentially impossible mix of strict discipline, changes to work schedules, kid wrangling, and the embrace of commuting by bike or bus or scooter or saddled ostrich. Plus, when you are running out of gas and you need to keep going, you only have one option: stop and get more gas. Sure, you can save a few cents by choosing which station you stop at, but since you cannot single-handedly control the shadowy global commodity market for crude oil, there is really nothing you can do about it when your gauge gets close to “E.” Trying to outsmart Big Gas, then, may leave you feeling like this:
I, for one, wish that we as a society did not ascribe so much power to gas prices. That is the world I wish existed, but that is not the world that we live in.
So let me tell you about a gas station that has supernatural powers.
The Part Where I Actually Talk About the Reason Why You Opened This Post
I’ll just get to it. Here is that gas station:
This is the Lake Wylie Mini Mart on Highway 274, between Gastonia, North Carolina and Lake Wylie, South Carolina. I have been there. I can report to you that it is, as your eyes are showing you, a regular-ass gas station.
Looks can be deceiving, though, because the thing that you can’t see is this: The station touches the border between North and South Carolina.
Those of you who live near the border may think that you know where this story is going. If you don’t, you still may know that South Carolina has consistently cheaper gas prices than North Carolina because our inferior neighbors to the south have lower state gas taxes. Gas prices can vary by region, city, neighborhood, or block. But on a statewide level, variations in prices are driven by gas taxes. Hence, you’re always going to find cheaper gas in South Carolina.
(One last economics note: If you’re already going to be driving to South Carolina, it makes sense to get cheaper gas there. But deliberately making a trip there to top off your tank is almost never worth it, because you burn gas getting there, and the actual savings are never going to be as much as you think. Also South Carolina has been steadily raising its gas tax over the last years. It was 16 cents a gallon at the beginning of 2017. It’ll be 28 cents starting in July. That means it’ll only be 10 cents cheaper than North Carolina’s rate of 38.5 cents a gallon.)
Anyhow, all of that means gas stations just south of the border are super enticing for North Carolinians. The Lake Wylie Mini Mart is just a few yards south of the border. Or, at least it was.
When You Change States Without Actually Moving
Back in 1993, North and South Carolina embarked on a project together. They decided to figure out where the state line actually was, instead of where people thought it might be. To wit, the Carolinas were separated in 1712, and there were specific sets of instructions given to say where the border between them was supposed to go. Simply, it was supposed to be two straight lines. But surveyors messed up, and then one state tried to compensate the other with land, and folks, it just became a mess.
Also, it’s not actually a straight line… anywhere. I know it looks like it, but the border itself was marked on rocks (which can be hard to find) or trees (which are all dead now). It’s straightish, and zigzags from tree to rock to rock to tree and so on. Both states had a vested interest in figuring out exactly where the border was supposed to go because they didn’t want to have to sue each other into oblivion over it, so in the ‘90s surveyors set out to draw it definitively. I’ve talked to these surveyors. They were adamant: They were not moving the border (because North Carolina’s constitution says the borders can’t move). Rather, they “re-established” it.
In some places, like at Carowinds, the border was exactly where it was marked. But in other places, the line was off by a few hundred yards. Hence, when the survey was completed in 2013 and the entire 334-mile border was finalized in 2017, there were some homes, properties, and businesses that had always thought they’d been in South Carolina that now were considered to be in North Carolina.
Places like the Lake Wylie Mini Mart. Which is a big problem for a gas station whose major draw is cheap gas.
The Law That Allows This Station To Pretend Like It’s Still in South Carolina
The folks who drew these lines knew there would be situations like this. After all, the property didn’t move. It was the border that mo— sorry, was RE-ESTABLISHED. But regardless, gas stations in North Carolina have to follow North Carolina laws, which means they have to charge the higher North Carolina taxes.
That is, except for the Lake Wylie Mini Mart.
The North Carolina part of the law that re-established the border is fairly short: Only one long sentence. But the part that deals with all of the complications that arose stretches on for 6 more pages. It talks about things like in-state tuition, drivers licenses, deeds, public schools, and more. But it also allows gas stations that changed states to be able to, basically, pay their gas taxes at South Carolina’s rates. It also allows them to keep selling alcohol if they’d previously been selling it in South Carolina, which the Lake Wylie Mini Mart had been doing. Technically, laws aren’t supposed to be written to benefit one person or business, so this is a blanket law that covers ANY gas station that switched states. But this is the only station that did so, so this is, effectively, a law for one.
Here’s the catch, though: The exemption ends when the property is sold. "That provision does destroy the resale value of our property," the gas station’s owner told the Gaston Gazette in 2016. "But if it's the best fix we can come up with, we'll take it."
Okay, so this station is endowed with superpowers, but is now CLEARLY part of North Carolina. Right? RIGHT?
No! No it’s clearly not! For whatever reason, a lot of people sort of refuse to update the things that would let you know that this gas station has changed states. That includes Google and Apple maps:
Also, as of a few months ago, the road signs were still in their old location and have now been wrong for a half decade. The placement of road signs isn’t a precise science, but these ones are still about 250 feet to the northwest of the station, when they should be a few yards to the southeast.
Only the Gaston County tax rolls and map seem to be correct here, which makes sense, because Gaston County wants all of that sweet, sweet property tax. Another clue: the street address changed from South Carolina to North Carolina. You’d already know that if you were sending mail to this gas station, which you are not.
Just to try and confirm all of this: I made a call to the Lake Wylie Mini Mart on Wednesday (The station still has a South Carolina area code). The person who picked up said that the gas station is in North Carolina, and also said that she thought that the state line signs were in the place where they’d always been but was new to the area and couldn’t say for sure, and then I asked if she could check for me, and there was a long pause, and the cash register started ringing, and I could faintly hear her tell someone in the store that she was “too busy for this,” and then I asked if she was still there, and then a minute later, she hung up. Sorry.
Anyhow! It’s been five years since the Lake Wylie Mini Mart “switched states.” And yet, driving by, you’d never know that this North Carolina gas station is, quite cleverly, disguised as a South Carolina convenience store. There’s only one other clue: The fireworks stand out back had to close for good. I’d say that it’s too bad that this mini mart couldn’t celebrate its last days in South Carolina with a bang. But if there’s a worse idea than over-monitoring prices at the pump, it’s setting off a bottle rocket next to one.
The original reporting for this newsletter was based on a short story and a podcast episode that I created about North Carolina’s borders for Our State magazine in 2018, so if you’re as obsessed with borders as I am, you can learn a lot more here.