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Cars travel highway 61 near Runnymede Plantation Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

With North Charleston poised to annex a large piece of undeveloped land in West Ashley, Charleston City Council made a pre-emptive strike Tuesday to take the area first.

Council unanimously endorsed a strategy that would allow the city to annex more than 5,000 acres along S.C. Highway 61, a massive land grab that includes the 2,200-acre property owned by Whitfield Construction Co. that the city believes North Charleston is plotting to annex. 

Charleston wouldn't need permission from the Whitfield owners because, under state law, a municipality only needs 75 percent of the area's property owners with 75 percent of the total assessed value to agree to it. 

The city has received enough annexation requests from property owners surrounding the Whitfield tract to meet that requirement.

The city famously used the same mechanism to annex Daniel Island in the early 1990s, one of the largest annexation moves in its history. The pending West Ashley annexation also ranks among the largest: It includes an area about the same size as the city's peninsula, which was the city's limits until 1960.

Before City Council can proceed, state law requires the city to hold a public hearing about such an annexation, which has to be advertised 30 days in advance. 

That hearing would likely be held at council's Jan. 23 meeting.

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Annexation fight preview (copy) (copy)

North Charleston's expected annexation of a 1-acre parcel this month is likely to be challenged by the city of Charleston.

The Whitfield family owns the Runnymede Plantation between the Ashley River and Highway 61, which North Charleston annexed in October. The next month, the family donated to North Charleston a 1-acre parcel on the other side of the highway.

North Charleston is voting Thursday to annex that acre, but it's likely to be challenged by the city of Charleston. Although the parcel is next to Runnymede, the National Trust owns 100 feet of land between the two properties. That strip is in the city of Charleston.

The S.C. Supreme Court has ruled that cities may annex land only if it's contiguous with that city's existing territory.

Charleston’s plan could put a stop to what many assumed is the grand scheme behind North Charleston’s westward expansion: the future annexation of the 2,200 undeveloped acres next to the single acre. Some feared North Charleston would zone the currently agricultural land as business or residential and worsen flooding and traffic with intense new development.

North Charleston officials including Mayor Keith Summey have said those aren't realistic fears. They haven't confirmed plans to annex the larger property, though they argue it would be legal.

City spokesman Ryan Johnson has said the 1-acre property is valuable for other reasons.

"We expect to use that tract as a staging base from which to provide services as needed. For instance, the city may pre-position a police, fire or public works vehicle there for more ready access to Watson Hill and Runnymede, should circumstances warrant," he said.

Charleston officials said the Whitfield property is critical to their long-term plans to improve drainage in that area, one of the most flood-prone spots in the Lowcountry. 

City Attorney Frances Cantwell said allowing North Charleston to annex and potentially develop property there would also violate the urban growth boundary, set by both the city and Charleston County to protect rural lands and prevent sprawl.

“As the mayor has made clear, the city of Charleston is committed to protecting the integrity of the urban growth boundary and to improve conditions in the Church Creek drainage basin,” she said. “These annexations further those interests and those goals.”

Council approved the proposal without discussion. After the meeting, Councilman Keith Waring said he believes it's the right move.

"I'm very happy with the strategy," he said.

Hannah Alani contributed to this report.

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.