North Charleston seems poised to make another jump across the Ashley River, potentially setting up another battle over the city's westward expansion.
This week, City Council voted to accept a 1-acre land donation from the Whitfield Construction Co. The small parcel of land lies west of S.C. Highway 61, opposite the Runnymede Plantation, which North Charleston annexed last month.
The Whitfield company and the William Whitfield Trust also own the land within Runnymede, which sits between the historic plantation attractions of Magnolia Gardens and Middleton Place, according to property records.
The move has the trappings of a previous attempt by North Charleston to annex and develop rural land west of the Ashley River.
In 2004, the city annexed the 6,600-acre Watson Hill property, an undeveloped tract that many wanted to see remain rural. The annexation triggered a fierce debate over the future of the region’s historic plantation district and which local government could best serve it.
What followed was also a legal tug of war — or, in North Charleston City Councilman Ron Brinson's words, a "battle royale" — between Charleston, North Charleston, Summerville and Dorchester County. North Charleston was forced into accepting a conservation easement, which meant the city could keep the land but was barred from allowing new development, such as restaurants or apartments.
Mayor Keith Summey did not respond to an interview request Wednesday, but city spokesman Ryan Johnson provided a statement later that day saying the city intends to annex this land at its next City Council meeting in December.
Johnson said the annexation would support Runnymede, adding, "City fire, police and public works departments are developing a plan that would use this site to support the properties that are in the city."
"Cities must grow to prosper," Johnson added.
If this sentiment sounds familiar, that's because it is.
Summey has long been vocal about his desire to expand his city's limits. Brinson first was elected to council a decade ago, when it was waging a legal fight over Watson Hill. The mayor thought it was imperative for North Charleston to "always have an open annexation growth boundary," Brinson said.
"To do otherwise, he (the mayor) declared, would be to terminate definitively our city's ability to grow," Brinson said. "I found this to be consistent with Charleston and Mount Pleasant's annexation practices."
Cut off at the pass?
The city of Charleston shaped South Carolina's cross-river annexation laws in the early 1960s, when it jumped the Ashley and annexed some West Ashley neighborhoods closest to downtown.
Once Charleston annexed its first parts of West Ashley, it could annex any land that touched those areas.
The 1-acre parcel does not touch the Runnymede Plantation. It does not, technically, even touch Highway 61.
Running parallel to Highway 61 is a long, narrow sliver of land owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, according to property records. This little-known line, 26.4 acres in total, was an outgrowth of the Watson Hill debate.
As the Watson Hill battle raged, Charleston and Summerville cooperated in 2005 on a new line to try to prevent further North Charleston expansions. At the time, then Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said, "To use the Old West analogy, we have cut them off at the pass."
Whitfield's property is a stone's throw from Runnymede, but the lands are not "contiguous."
The statute in question, however, actually states that land must be "contiguous or adjacent" in order to be annexed.
If North Charleston can make the case that the 1-acre parcel is "adjacent" to the Runnymede property, then the parcel could be annexed.
The Whitfield Construction Co., which owns about 2,200 acres next to the acre parcel, could not be reached at the phone number associated with the business. Tri-county area phone numbers associated with Floyd Whitfield, the company's possible owner, were out of service.
More development on the way?
In a Friday interview, Ron Brinson defended the city's annexation plan.
"The city has engaged in just about every municipal growth strategy that we know of," Brinson said, citing revitalization as diverse as East Montague's street improvements and the relatively new Golf Club at Wescott Plantation.
Summey and the Whitfield family have been talking about North Charleston's possible annexation for years. Johnson noted the city has never turned down such a property owner's request to annex in.
"The mayor's point is that it's good to always have ability to step into another area that will provide long-term growth," Brinson said. "I personally think that comes with embracing high standards of planning and development. Our city is capable of that."
But even some in North Charleston question whether this West Ashley expansion is a good idea.
On Tuesday, City Councilman Bob King cast the lone no vote against accepting the 1-acre donation. His opposition was rooted in the city's inability to serve the area properly, given the lack of bridges connecting it to North Charleston.
"We got plenty of development here to take care of," King said, "as opposed to going across the river."
Both Johnson and Brinson said the city has no long-term plans for Runnymede or the 1-acre parcel. Whatever development that ultimately may happen there — and on other largely vacant land in and around the Ashley River Historic District — will be decided well down the road.
"It will be one step at a time," Brinson said, "and it will be a transparent and very public process."