The last opponent of North Charleston's bid to leap the Ashley River and annex the valuable Watson Hill tract called it quits Monday.
What happens next will affect regional growth for decades to come but the short story is this: North Charleston is now an unquestioned neighbor of the Middleton Place plantation and other key sites along South Carolina's history-rich S.C. Highway 61.
In a joint statement, North Charleston officials, the Coastal Conservation League and the MeadWestvaco Corp. -- owner of the 7,100-acre densely wooded tract -- said the protracted legal fight that challenged the city's cross-river annexation is no more.
The lawsuit, pushed solely by the conservationist group, died in two ways.
First, the suit had been voluntarily pulled off the docket in Dorchester County by the league and wasn't refiled within the one year permitted to be active again.
Second, league officials opted not to pursue the fight further, saying they were satisfied with MeadWestvaco's commitment to protecting the area through conservation easements and small scale development.
That could mean fewer than 1,000 housing units going in, according to the company's preliminary plan -- far fewer than the 5,000 homes originally discussed when the idea of developing Watson Hill surfaced years ago.
"It's a victory for everyone involved," said Megan Desrosiers, associate director at the league.
Mayor Keith Summey said the outcome firmly establishes North Charleston as a city with a growth path and plan covering the next 25 years.
He said the city was able to extend its boundaries "not only for today but for the next generation of young people," he said, calling the outcome "a strong victory" for the city.
"We feel like we already had it," Summey added of the annexation push that had survived an earlier challenge from the town of Summerville.
The conclusion is not expected to greatly affect North Charleston City Council's seat redistricting now under way since Watson Hill is undeveloped, no one lives there or is expected to for years. But it does mean the city has to begin preparing for how it will provide police patrols and fire protection over time -- miles from the heart of where most people recognize as North Charleston.
"We are not going to set up a speed zone," Summey joked of current police patrols.
Summey also said this may not be the end of the city's interest in expanding. "We are not out trying to find people to annex, but if they come to us, we're more than willing to talk about annexation and the future," he said.
Battle to stop the city
The battle to stop North Charleston began in 2004 when the thousands of acres of Watson Hill timberlands were first sold by MeadWestvaco. A developer planned a massive residential and hotel complex built around a golf course, similar to North Charleston's Wescott Plantation.
But that type of development in the vicinity of the scenic plantation sites along Ashley River Road ignited public outrage at a time when growth was turning Dorchester County and Summerville into one of the fastest-expanding areas in the country.
The dispute cooled in 2009 when MeadWestvaco announced it was buying the land back amid a rising chorus that smaller, more protective development was warranted.
A company executive said Monday the end of the conservation league's legal fight may have opened the door for North Charleston to finalize its claim on Watson Hill but does not greatly alter how the site is expected to eventually be developed, smaller scale and low density.
"The reality is it's always been annexed to North Charleston (since the company bought it back)," said Ken Seeger, president of MeadWestvaco's community development and land-management group.
He added "whether it's in North Charleston or Dorchester County (zoning) doesn't really change what would be appropriate for the property."
It could be several years before market conditions recover to the point where planning the development would make economic sense, Seeger added, but that the company plans to stay consistent with Dorchester County's low-density historic district zoning that controls the area.
Dorchester County and Summerville officials, meanwhile, said Monday they remain confident in MeadWestvaco's stewardship of the land. But they also said they have lingering concerns over how the property will be developed and what hiccups could come.
Concerns remain too that North Charleston's getting a foothold across the river puts the city in position to annex even more, including 72,000 acres that MeadWestvaco also owns south of Watson Hill where the company plans to develop what's been called the East Edisto project.
East Edisto's master plan calls for a mixed-use development of environmentally sensitive community "corners," villages and towns ringed with lakes and parks and commerce parks, leaving open large tracts of farms and woodlands, making it ripe for future claims.
"That's been my concern; it still is," said Summerville Councilman Walter Bailey, who campaigned for Town Council in 2009 by saying Summerville should annex aggressively in the district, to keep North Charleston from hemming it in.
Other Dorchester leaders were equally cautious about North Charleston, while encouraging MeadWestvaco to stay in command for the duration.
"Of course it's a concern," said Larry Hargett, County Council chairman, who in an earlier stint as chairman led the county fight against high-density development in Watson Hill. "If (MeadWestvaco) sells, they could annex all over the place," he said.
The company currently is working out development agreements for East Edisto with both Dorchester and Charleston counties since the tract has acreage in both jurisdictions. In the agreements, the counties and the developer draw up a contract for zoning rules, timetables and provisions for public services.
The agreements, also called PUDs, are generally made for large-tract developments to allow the tracts to be planned as a whole community, rather than a series of individually zoned properties.
No PUD is under way so far for Watson Hill.
Watson Hill timeline
Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.