Properties in play (copy)

Brandon Lockett/Staff/File

Charleston City Council is expected to take its first vote Tuesday to annex a huge swath of rural land in outer West Ashley, including two properties that North Charleston already annexed.

Affected land owners and any other members of the public will have a chance to weigh in before council makes a decision. The meeting begins at 5 p.m. at City Hall, 80 Broad St.

If approved, Charleston's plan would be sent to the Planning Commission for review at its Feb. 21 meeting before it can be finalized by council.

That would put Charleston's effort more than two months behind North Charleston's annexation of the same two properties: the 30-acre Millbrook Plantation LLC and the 2,200-acre Whitfield tract. But it might not matter who laid claim to the properties first because of likely court challenges.

North Charleston finalized its annexation in late December. The owners requested to join North Charleston after they were included in Charleston's annexation of 6,000 acres without their consent.

Charleston was able to do that using what's known as the 75 percent rule. Under state law, a municipality only needs 75 percent of an area's property owners with 75 percent of the total assessed value to agree to the annexation.

The strategy, set in motion in mid-December, was meant to thwart North Charleston's attempt to move its city limits further into West Ashley.

With both cities claiming the same territory, the dispute seems certain to be on a legal collision.

Charleston has until midnight Feb. 26 to notify North Charleston and the Charleston County Clerk of Court of its intent to challenge the North Charleston's annexation. Charleston would then have to file a lawsuit within 30 days, according to city attorney Frances Cantwell.

She said she's not necessarily waiting until the city finalizes its own annexation plan.

"We’re studying all the angles," she said.

The turf war for the unincorporated properties along S.C. Highway 61 began in November.

The Whitfield family owns the Runnymede Plantation between the Ashley River and Highway 61. North Charleston annexed it in October without any opposition, because land is considered contiguous to a city even if a body of water separates the two.

The next month, the Whitfields donated to North Charleston a 1-acre parcel of its larger property on the other side of the highway.

That was the key North Charleston needed to annex the whole Whitfield tract, and potentially other unincorporated properties next to it. 

However, a strip of land in the city of Charleston's limits runs between the Whitfield tract and Runnymede — so by traditional standards, it's not contiguous to land already in North Charleston.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey has said the city can legally hop over that boundary using a little-known state statute that says a city may annex land it already owns if it's adjacent to the city limits.

Whether "adjacent" means something different than "contiguous" hasn't been defined in South Carolina's courts, said Scott Slatton, the legislative and public policy advocate at the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

“To our knowledge, this annexation exception in the law has not been used," he said. "And if it has been used, we’re not aware of any challenge to it, or ruling on it, or even the attorney general’s opinion on it.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.