AWENDAW -- William Alston has served as mayor of this small town since its incorporation in 1992, but he now faces something he has never seen before: an opponent.

The challenge from Town Councilman Samuel Robinson gives voters here a clear choice on Nov. 3, and the results are expected to reverberate through neighboring Mount Pleasant, McClellanville and beyond.

That's because Awendaw's big issue is growth and development, not so much whether it should happen but what it should look like and how fast it should come.

Voters in this rural stretch decided to incorporate in 1992 so they could make their own land-use decisions and not be swallowed up by Mount Pleasant's suburban creep.

Things hummed along quietly until a few years ago, when the town began annexing several larger parcels and approving zoning for several hundred more houses. While practically none has been built -- the town still doesn't have a stoplight -- Robinson's candidacy can be seen as a backlash.

"What's at stake is a way of life," Robinson said. "What's at stake is the possibility -- no, the certainty -- that what we do today will have an impact on generations to come. ... The damage to the unique qualities that make Awendaw Awendaw, all of those things are at stake."

Alston says what's at stake is whether the town will keep the known quality of his leadership or gamble on someone new. "There has to be some growth in the community. Otherwise, we're going to die as a community," he said. "The development we're talking about, 90 percent of it won't happen in my lifetime. It's not something that's going to happen overnight."

The town provides few services beyond planning and zoning, though it also has been building a water system and helping with some house repairs.

In recent years, the town has grown significantly by annexing and rezoning about six large parcels. The town's limits now stretch for about 11 miles along a rural stretch of U.S. Highway 17. Concerned by these annexations and rezonings, Robinson and Nell Davis ran for council two years ago and defeated two incumbents.

Alston said that election was a turning point. "This election is nothing new," he said. "Our citizens have been together as one family until two years ago."

A preacher in the AME church, Alston often sprinkles his speech with Biblical imagery. "I'm disappointed we've reached the point where there are efforts by some persons to divide us," he said. "A house divided cannot stand. It will crumble and fall."

But Robinson says his goal is to unite all Awendaw residents, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, against big development. "I'm not anti-development, and I'd like to make that perfectly clear," he said. "What I am for is development that will blend in with what we have, that will respect the uniqueness of this culture and this environment."

Robinson says he would not support suburban-style rezonings and would work to persuade landowners not to pursue those already in place. He also favors clustering commercial development around town hall, where Doar Road meets Highway 17. And he would emphasize fixing broken septic systems rather than expanding sewer service.

Alston says his platform includes support for a new assisted living facility, a recreational complex and more small businesses such as a supermarket, bank and fast-food restaurant. He vows to improve housing, water service and sewer repairs to an area marked by pockets of poverty.

Robinson also cites the town's financial difficulties, which include a lack of recent audits and a former clerk who pled guilty last year to embezzling from the town, as well as the millions of dollars spent developing a town water system that has yet to deliver its first drop.

Alston says some delays in the water system are out of the town's control, such as the recent incident in which someone shot a hole in the water tank behind town hall or the economic ripple effect of Hurricane Katrina. "We had pipes sitting on the Town Hall yard for two years because of Katrina," he said.

Each mayoral candidate is running with his own slate of Town Council candidates. Alston's "A-team" includes incumbents Miriam C. Green and Bryan McNeal Jr. and newcomers Albertha S. Singleton and Sheila M. Powell.

Robinson's slate includes Town Council candidates Betty J. Simmons, Isaiah Simmons and James Bubba Goodwin.

They are even divided on the referendum question, which would change four of council's six seats from at-large elections to single-member districts.

About two-thirds of the town's residents are black -- as are all but one of the candidates on the ballot (Goodwin is white) -- but Alston says the change will ensure black voters have a voice after the town grows and changes. Meanwhile, Robinson is fine with all elections remaining at-large. "If it's not broke, don't fix it," he said.

The mayoral candidates' support seems to break somewhat down by age. Alston, 74, might be more popular among the town's older residents. He recently campaigned at a senior gathering that drew several dozen people to Mount Nebo AME Church.

Robinson, 67, might have an edge among younger voters. His campaign operates out of the old Fender's Store at Doar Road and Highway 17, and tacked on the walls inside are people's wishes for what the building might become once Robinson's campaign is over.

"It's not about development," Alston said. "It's not about the Francis Marion (National) Forest. It's not about fish and wildlife. It's about who's in charge."

Alston says a Robinson victory would put the Coastal Conservation League -- a nonprofit environmental advocacy group -- in charge, but Robinson strongly disagrees.

"The Coastal Conservation League does not have a vote," he said. "The Coastal Conservation League is dedicated to the preservation of natural resources that he enjoys and that I enjoy, that all of us enjoy. The Coastal Conservation League is a friend of the town of Awendaw and of all towns similarly situated. It shocks the conscience to hear such foolishness."

Judging from the number of absentee votes, Awendaw's election ranks as the hottest of the many municipal elections Nov. 3, says Charleston County Elections and Voter Registration director Marilyn Bowers.

The town has only 968 registered voters, and 48 -- or 5 percent -- already had voted absentee or requested absentee ballots as of Friday.

"For the first time in the almost 20-year history of this town, the citizens will have a clear choice," Robinson said, "and it will be interesting to see what the results are on Nov. 3."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or at rbehre@postandcourier.com.