A three-year legal battle that could determine how many houses can be built near Charleston's historic plantations goes before the S.C. Supreme Court today.

The court will hear arguments in the Watson Hill annexation lawsuit between Summerville and North Charleston.

Watson Hill is a 6,670-acre tract on S.C. Highway 61 near Middleton Place, an 18th-century plantation. A development group wants to build up to 5,000 houses and hotel rooms around a golf course there. The plans sparked a national outcry from those worried about Charleston's plantation district losing its character.

Dorchester County zoning does not allow that many houses in the area. The developers, S.C. Property Holdings, asked North Charleston to annex Watson Hill to allow more houses.

In June 2005, North Charleston annexed

Watson Hill, along with a parcel called the Barry tract, which is on the Ashley River between Watson Hill and the former King's Grant golf course in North Charleston. The problem is that Summerville annexed the Barry tract four days earlier, to keep North Charleston from getting to Watson Hill.

North Charleston and Summerville sued each other over the annexations. The Watson Hill development has been on hold since then. North Charleston is arguing that Summerville's annexation is not valid. One of North Charleston's arguments is that Summerville did not publicize the required annexation hearing 30 days in advance, as state law requires.

In March 2006, 1st Circuit Judge James Williams ruled that Summerville missed the legal requirements for advance notice by 12 hours. Summerville appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

The high court will decide whether Summerville met the deadline for publicizing the hearing, but that won't settle the case. The case will go back to the circuit court after the Supreme Court rules on that one point.

"I really don't think it (the Supreme Court's decision) is going to have any effect in the outcome of the case," Summerville's attorney, Jack Scoville of Georgetown, said Tuesday.

Summerville is arguing that the town met the deadline and a couple of hours should not make a difference. North Charleston's attorneys disagree. But just in case, they have at least seven other arguments against Summerville's annexation that the circuit court will have to consider.

"(After the Supreme Court ruling) we will pick up where we left off," North Charleston Deputy Attorney Derk Van Raalte said.

Both attorneys expect the case to drag out for at least several more months after the high court's decision.

The 30-minute hearing before the Supreme Court is today at 9:30 a.m. in Columbia.