A state court has voided Awendaw's annexation of the 356-acre Nebo tract, calling into question earlier annexations that have vastly increased the size of the town since 1992 and, conservationists say, threatened the Francis Marion National Forest.

The Nebo property, added in 2009, was the most recent of the annexations, most of which were achieved by connecting the town to pockets of private land by 10-foot wide strips through the national forest. The narrow strips were essential to many of the annexations because, under state law, towns can only annex adjacent properties.

Town officials said they plan to appeal, but the court ruling late last month that Awendaw had circumvented state law by using an invalid method to annex the Nebo tract could have long-term implications for development along the 259,000-acre forest's borders.

If the Nebo tract and the adjacent 6,000-acre Fairlawn Plantation were fully developed, said Dana Beach, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, the roads through Mount Pleasant would be choked with traffic, and taxes for Awendaw and Charleston County residents likely would increase. The league and two Awendaw residents brought the lawsuit against the town.

Forest management also could have been adversely affected - the U.S. Forest Service wouldn't be able to do controlled burns on tens of thousands of acres of land around residential neighborhoods, Beach said. Controlled burns clear away dead trees and a buildup of undergrowth that can fuel wildfires.

"This single legal decision eliminates the threat of those things happening," Beach said.

The 10-foot strip

When Awendaw incorporated in 1992, it was home to fewer than 1,000 people. Sitting astride Highway 17 just north of Mount Pleasant, the area consists of some homes, a town hall, a gas station and wooded open space. A dollar store and tractor supply store recently have been built.

But motorists passing through on their way north to Myrtle Beach or south to Charleston don't see the tentacles running through the forest to large tracts of private land.

Awendaw first used the 10-foot strip method in 1994 to annex a pocket of land north of the town that roughly doubled the size of the town.

To do that, it got a letter from the U.S. Forest Service which said it had no objection to the town annexing the 10-foot strip as long as it didn't hinder the Forest Service's ability to manage the forest.

It was an unusual annexation method because typically landowners petition a town asking to be annexed.

During the next decade, Awendaw used 10-foot wide strips to annex three more large pockets of land that otherwise would not have bordered the town. Having already gotten the Forest Service's acquiescence the first time, Awendaw didn't go to the trouble of asking again.

In 2004, the town annexed a strip of the forest and a tiny lot in the southeastern corner of the Nebo tract, which is home to the Mt. Nebo AME Church. It annexed the rest of the tract in 2009.

Town leaders have said they wanted to expand the town to bring in more residents and taxes so it could expand its services.

The annexations didn't go unnoticed or unchallenged, however. Two Awendaw residents, Lynne Vicary and Kent Prause, and the Coastal Conservation League filed a lawsuit against the town in 2009 claiming it had improperly annexed the Nebo tract.

Two years after they filed their lawsuit, Paul Bradley, supervisor of the Francis Marion National Forest, sent a letter to then-Mayor Samuel Robinson which stated the Forest Service "did not intend for its letter of May 3, 1994, to constitute a petition of the federal government to annex national forest lands, which are owned in their entirety by the federal government and are administered by the USFS."

While the recent court ruling applied only to the 10-foot strip connected to the Nebo tract, Beach said it could invalidate previous annexations that were done the same way. "The ruling could be used on other sections and ultimately lead to the deconstruction of the town," he said.

Dwayne Green, the town's lawyer, said he believes the decision only affects the Nebo tract and that the town plans to argue in its appeal that the deadline for challenging earlier annexations had already passed, Annexations must be challenged within 90 days, Green said.

The lawsuit was filed within 90 days of the town's 2009 annexation of the Nebo tract, Green said, but the strip that connects the tract to the rest of the town was annexed in 2004, and nobody challenged it.

Government gone wild

Development around Awendaw raises the hackles of conservationists because it sits in an environmentally sensitive area in the national forest.

On many maps, the forest looks like a solid green dam holding back the urbanized areas of Mount Pleasant. But the maps don't show the more than 130,000 acres of privately owned land inside the forest's boundaries.

Instead, the national forest is more like Swiss cheese, with the holes representing private holdings. The Forest Service has little control over how private land is developed.

It also sits outside of Charleston County's Urban Growth Boundary, a line that separates areas where dense, urban and suburban development are permitted from more rural areas.

If the town hadn't incorporated, and the land now in it was located in the unincorporated part of the county, large, dense developments wouldn't be allowed. But a town can give those developments the go-ahead.

A few large developments have been approved in the town including the 326-acre White tract, the 1,000-acre King tract and the 356-acre Nebo tract. Construction hasn't begun in any of them.

Under town rules, developers could build up to about one house per acre, while county rules would have allowed only about one house per 10 acres.

Beach said he thinks the town was in an annexation frenzy that had grown out of control by 2009. The Nebo tract is adjacent to the 6,000-acre Fairlawn Plantation, which conservationists feared would be the next annexation domino to fall, he said. "This is the poster child for government gone wild."

In April, Boeing Co. gave two conservation groups $5.4 million to purchase and protect 2,241 acres of Fairlawn as part of the wetlands mitigation plan involving the 500-acre expansion of its jet-making campus at Charleston International Airport.

Samuel Robinson, who served as mayor of the town from 2009 to 2013 and as a town councilman from 2007 to 2009, said he has some deep concerns about how the town is growing.

He voted in favor of the Nebo tract annexation in 2009 when he was on Town Council, he said. Town lawyers at the time assured council members that all previous annexations were done properly, he said.

But Robinson, who grew up in Awendaw and returned to his hometown after living in Washington, D.C., for 35 years, said he became worried about how all the growth in store for Awendaw would impact the forest. "There needs to be and should be development of the town," he said, "but it should be respectful of where we are."

He also began to worry that an influx of middle- and upper-class residents would drive up land prices and taxes and eventually force out residents with generational ties to the community. "It's the poor people, black and white, who are driven out," he said.

There's disagreement among longtime Awendaw residents about how much of the area should be developed, he said. "Some people think bigness means you're making progress, but it's progress at a price."

Isaiah Simmons, who lives in the town, is a lifelong resident of Awendaw. In 2009, he petitioned the town to annex a piece of property he owns that's adjacent to the another part of the town. Town council rejected his petition without giving him a reason, he said.

If that property had been annexed, his daughter would have petitioned the town to annex her property, which is adjacent to her father's property.

Simmons said Town Council has shot down other lifelong Awendaw residents' petitions to annex into the town, while allowing large developments to be annexed. He thinks some Town Council members have used their power to keep people out of the town who don't agree with them politically, especially on the issue of development.

Simmons thinks some development is good, but he doesn't want it to harm the character of the community. "We're accustomed to our surroundings and the space we have," he said.

Awendaw Town Administrator Donald Wallace said the Nebo tract will remain part of the town until the appeal is settled. So far, no development has occurred on the tract, and none will while the appeal is pending, he said.

If the Nebo annexation is invalidated, he said, the town would lose 359 acres of land and the future residences, businesses and property taxes that go with them.

Representatives from EBCSC, LLC, the group that owns the Nebo tract, could not be reached for comment.

Keith Brown, with American Forest Management, said he's working as a consultant to EBCSC, but he doesn't know about the group's plans for the land. "As far as I know, the owner is going to use it for timber land."

Dickie Schweers, who represents the Awendaw area on Charleston County Council, said for years he has heard complaints from residents about the town's methods of annexing property. If the recent court decision is upheld, it could "correct a wrong that has laid dormant for two decades," he said.

And he thinks someone soon will challenge the annexation of the other 10-foot strips and the pockets of land they connect to the town. "I would be amazed if folks didn't seize on that to undo any annexations they can."

Reach Diane Knich at 843-937-5491 or on Twitter at @dianeknich.