WASHINGTON - The first application by a national bank to branch across state lines was filed at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

Patrick Henry National Bank, a $325 million-asset institution in Bassett, Va., hopes to build a new branch in Eden, N.C., making it the first to take advantage of "de novo" branching.

The 1994 Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act gives states until June 1, 1997, to decide whether to accept or block interstate branching. Virginia passed legislation permitting branching across its state lines in March, and North Carolina did so in June.

"This is the only application here that falls under the strict definition of the way the law was anticipated to work," said OCC spokesman Ed Alwood.

Worth Harris Carter Jr., chairman and president of Patrick Henry National, said that so many residents of Henry County, Va., where his bank is located, work in Rockingham County, N.C., that opening a branch there made economic sense.

"While the state line has been an iron barrier as far as being able to branch, the reality is that the economy has flowed freely across the border," Mr. Carter said. "If there wasn't a border there, we would have done this sort of thing years ago."

Other institutions, such as NationsBank and Signet Bank, have taken advantage of states with early opt-in laws, but have done so by acquiring existing branches across state lines.

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