The city of Charleston and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have lost their first round of legal challenges over North Charleston’s annexation of a historically sensitive West Ashley property.

But more rounds may be fought before it's all resolved.

Circuit Judge Eugene Griffith Jr. ruled recently that neither Charleston nor the National Trust have the legal right to challenge North Charleston's 2017 annexation of the Whitfield Co. property off S.C. Highway 61 in the Ashley River Historic District.

That annexation was done with the owner's consent, which is known as a "100 percent annexation."

"Absent deceitful conduct, there are generally only two groups with standing to challenge a 100 percent annexation," Griffith ruled, noting those two groups include the property owners and the S.C. attorney general. "National Trust and Charleston fall into neither category."

At issue is whether the undeveloped 2,200-acre tract in Charleston County will become part of North Charleston — and whether that city might allow denser development than currently found in the historic rural area. 

In October 2017, the Whitfield family annexed Runnymede Plantation into North Charleston and then gave North Charleston an acre within their 2,200-tract on the other side of Highway 61. Runnymede sits along the Ashley River, making it contiguous to North Charleston.

The city and National Trust sued, challenging the annexation of the 1-acre parcel across the highway, noting it lies beyond a strip of National Trust land that already was annexed by Charleston.

They claimed North Charleston’s annexation illegally leaped over land already in Charleston. State law says land must be contiguous to land already annexed.

Griffith's ruling said if Charleston or the Trust had legal standing, then they would have a legitimate claim.

"In the event that this Court's findings of facts and analysis of the law is incorrect ... then this Court finds that the annexation of the Acre by North Charleston is not allowed under the law," it said. 

North Charleston spokesman Ryan Johnson said the city is pleased with the ruling.

"The court confirmed that neither the National Trust nor the City of Charleston are appropriately positioned to challenge North Charleston’s annexation of a key parcel," he added.

Charleston spokesman Jack O'Toole said the city is disappointed by the court’s decision and plans to ask the judge to reconsider.

"The city also plans to appeal the orders, if necessary," O'Toole added.

Charleston and the National Trust's lawsuit alleges North Charleston's annexation “will forever destroy the Ashley River Historic District’s continuity, injure its historic and archaeological significance, and significantly diminish its relatively harmonious scenic natural and historic vistas.”

North Charleston officials have pushed back on that, saying their government is as capable of responsibly planning the area's future as anyone else.

Around the same time that North Charleston annexed Whitfield's 1-acre parcel, the city of Charleston annexed a total of about 6,000 acres in the surrounding area, including the 2,200-acre Whitfield tract and a 30-acre property called Millbrook Plantation LLC — without either owners’ permission.

North Charleston struck back two days later with its own attempt to annex the Millbrook and Whitfield properties.

In related legal rulings, Griffith also turned down a motion by the National Trust to dismiss a lawsuit against it filed by the Whitfield Co. And he granted Millbrook Plantation LLC's motion to dismiss a case against it filed by the city of Charleston.

The Ashley River Historic District covers more than 30,000 acres — more than 35 square miles — along the river's upper reaches, including historic sites such as Drayton Hall, Magnolia Gardens and Middleton Place.

Last June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the district a national treasure but also placed it on its annual list of the nation's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The Ashley River District also made the trust's 1995 list because of threats from traffic and urban sprawl.

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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.