Ashley River Historic District (copy)

The oak allee leads up to Porter House on Millbrook Plantation in the Ashley River Historic District. Large, forested properties in this area near Highway 61 are caught in an annexation battle between the city of Charleston and North Charleston. Wade Spees/Staff/File

The city of Charleston and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have filed a lawsuit challenging the city of North Charleston's annexation of a rural West Ashley property. 

In October, 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 S.C. Highway 61. Runnymede was a valid annexation because it's on the Ashley River, making it contiguous to North Charleston.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday in circuit court challenges the annexation of the 1-acre parcel because it lies beyond a strip of National Trust land that was already annexed by Charleston.

Annexation fight preview (copy) (copy) (copy)

North Charleston's expected annexation of a 1-acre parcel this month is likely to be challenged by the city of Charleston. Chad Dunbar and Brandon Lockett/Staff/File

North Charleston's annexation attempt "ignores or 'leap frogs' over land previously annexed into the city," the lawsuit said.

State law says land must be contiguous to land already annexed.

North Charleston is justifying the move with a little-known state statute that says a city may annex land it already owns if it's adjacent to the city limits. The court must decide for the first time in South Carolina if "adjacent" means something different than "contiguous."

Charleston's lawsuit claims that North Charleston's strategy is invalid for these reasons:

  • A small area of the 1-acre parcel is actually a piece of the National Trust's land, so it isn't entirely owned by North Charleston.
  • The property is "not adjacent to or contiguous with" North Charleston.
  • The acre is actually contiguous with Charleston.

North Charleston's attorney Brady Hair declined comment Wednesday. The city has 30 days to respond to the lawsuit. 

Charleston also argues that the 1-acre annexation was part of North Charleston's "larger scheme to increase its tax base and tax revenues" by annexing the larger, 2,200-acre Whitfield Tract for development.

The lawsuit alleges "that 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."

The lawsuit is only half of Charleston's strategy to prevent North Charleston's push into outer West Ashley.

Around the same time North Charleston hopped over a city boundary and claimed the 1-acre parcel, Charleston annexed a total of about 6,000 acres in the surrounding area. That annexation included the 2,200-acre Whitfield tract and a 30-acre property called Millbrook Plantation LLC — without either owners' permission.

The city used the 75 percent rule, which means it can take properties without the owners' consent when 75 percent of surrounding property owners with 75 percent of the total land value request to join the city.

Property owners who joined Charleston's effort included Heyward Carter and his relatives as well the Truluck family, who wanted to preserve the area's rural character.

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

Charleston plans to file two more lawsuits to challenge them.

The Coastal Conservation League has been involved in efforts to preserve the Ashley River Historic District for years. It helped orchestrate an agreement between Charleston County and the city of Charleston to establish an Urban Growth Boundary, which has protected much of the district from development pressures.

"It is unfortunate that we have gotten to a point where lawsuits are being filed," said Jason Crowley, communities and transportation program director for the league. "We hope that in the end, the Historic District will remain rural and in the same condition it is today."

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