At a time when James Island residents are calling for more collaboration between governments with jurisdiction on the island, a bill recently introduced in the S.C. House could revive a long-running dispute between the city of Charleston and the town of James Island.
State Rep. Peter McCoy, a Republican representing much of James Island, is sponsoring the bill that could allow the town to expand into unincorporated parts of Charleston County that were once included in a previous version of the town, such as Sol Legare and Riverland Terrace.
From 1993-2011, voters in the unincorporated areas of James Island formed a town three times, only to see Charleston challenge its legality and the S.C. Supreme Court dissolve it. The recurring problem, the court ruled, was that the town was never a contiguous land mass.
When the town formed a fourth time, it incorporated a smaller portion of the island in the general area around Camp, Fort Johnson and Harbor View roads. In 2012, then-Charleston Mayor Joe Riley told the town he wouldn’t challenge it again because its contiguity was valid.
McCoy’s bill aims to make it possible for the town to grow significantly and return to something close to its previous size. It essentially tweaks the definition of “contiguous” to include properties served by the James Island Public Service District, which serves the town and all the unincorporated parts of the island.
McCoy said the areas that the town could annex would encompass about 17 percent of the island’s overall population and about 20 percent of its total land mass.
“This is just a vehicle we can use to try and reunite the town, and I hope it’s successful,” he said.
If the bill is passed by the House and Senate and is signed into law, the next step would be for the James Island PSD commissioners to vote to hold an annexation election for the unincorporated portion of its district, which includes about 6,000 residents in 5-and-a-half square miles.
It also could lead to another legal fight with the city of Charleston. City spokesman Jack O’Toole said Mayor John Tecklenburg wouldn’t support the town’s expansion effort.
"Mayor Tecklenburg's annexation policy has always rested on two core principles: self-determination for individual property owners, and a prohibition on the creation of new, multi-jurisdictional doughnut holes, which invariably lead to higher taxes due to waste and inefficiency,” O’Toole said in a statement.
He continued, “This legislation clearly violates both of those principles and, as a result, the city has no choice but to oppose it."
Charleston County Councilman Joe Qualey, who previously served on the James Island Town Council, supports McCoy’s proposal.
“I think if the folks in those areas want to be part of the town of James Island and still identify as part of the town of James Island, then they should be able to do that,” he said.
In the early 1990s, when the city annexed large swaths of unincorporated areas on James Island, many residents decided to form a town to wall off parts of the island they didn’t want the city to take over and approve for development.
Since the two-decade turf war reached a sort of cease-fire a few years ago, the city and town have made some progress mending their relationship. Tecklenburg signaled a new era of cooperation when he ceded a piece of city property to the town for the construction of its new Town Hall last year. The governments also cooperated on the recent ReThink Folly Road plan.
But development remains a top concern for many residents, and several say that getting county, city and town officials to collaborate is the best way to guide the island's growth.
Others, on the other hand, still believe expanding the town limits is their best defense against unwanted developments, such as more apartment complexes.
Susan Milliken, a longtime James Island resident, said several properties once in the town have since been annexed into the city and developed into projects that residents didn’t want, including the 20 acres along Maybank Highway where The Standard apartments were built.
Her only criticism of McCoy’s effort is that it didn’t come sooner. Companion bills were filed in the House and Senate during the last General Assembly session, but they didn’t go anywhere.
McCoy reintroduced the bill to the house two weeks ago, and it hasn’t seen much traction since.
“I fear it is too little, too late. Why wasn't the legislation filed in December or January for this session to have the entire session to work toward its passage?” Milliken said. “Every day, week, month lost on this means more properties are annexed into the city of Charleston and lost to the town forever.”
If the House doesn’t vote on it this year, the bill would still be pending when the General Assembly reconvenes in January 2018.