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South Carolina metro areas are growing, but its cities struggle to keep pace and inequities arise


South Carolina's weak annexation laws have created pockmarked cities. Often, the easiest way to tell which property is in the city is to inspect the color of its trash can (as on this James Island street). Grace Beahm Alford/Staff/File

South Carolina's urban areas have become the key driver of the state's economy, but aged annexation laws have prevented its cities from growing in an orderly way.

The Palmetto State's current annexation laws reflect the longstanding rural domination in state politics and the high value placed on property rights here. Almost 50 years after the Home Rule Act of 1975, cities still work under considerable constraints when expanding their limits.

Efforts to reform these laws have bubbled up for years but seldom get far, even though cities are where most people want to live.

Here's why this matters:

  • Developers on the fringe of cities often can play local governments against one another, seeking zoning and tax rates most favorable to them, not necessarily to their neighbors. For instance, the developer of Mount Pleasant's Carolina Park wanted its zoning set by the county, not the town, and was willing to build its own sewer plant to get its way.  
  • Local governments across the state grapple with inefficiencies as they send garbage trucks, firetrucks and law enforcement cars to different properties on the same street. In South Carolina, it's common for two different colored garbage trucks to work the same street. 
  • Urban residents often fall into one of two camps: payers or moochers, depending on whether their taxes support local government services they use and that make their community a better, more desirable place to live.

State Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, a former attorney for both Lancaster and Kershaw, introduced a bill this year that appears to be stuck, again. She said the bill's lack of progress hasn't stemmed from organized opposition but from minimal and disorganized support.

"As far as the citizenry goes, I don’t think it’s on most people’s radars," she said. "I don’t think most people are paying attention to this.”

Scott Slatton with the Municipal Association of South Carolina said even though most state residents now live in urban areas — the percent has risen from 48 percent in 1970 to 66 percent in 2010 — that hasn't been enough to convince lawmakers to act.

Meanwhile, only 35 percent of South Carolina residents lived in a city or town in 2010, census figures show.

“The cities are stuck in a Catch-22,” he said. “Annexation laws won’t let us grow out to where our natural boundaries will be, so we can’t accumulate or grow the representation at the state that we need to change the laws."

Fighting at the fringe

On occasion, an annexation issue can splash into headlines, such as when the cities of North Charleston and Charleston began a new legal battle over the future of 2,200 undeveloped acres in West Ashley.

Ostensibly, the legal battle will be fought over North Charleston's claim that it could annex this area because "adjacent" essentially establishes contiguity. 

But the real battle is over which local government — Charleston or North Charleston or Charleston County — will establish the zoning that determines its future.

Jacob Lindsey, Charleston's planning director, said the city's annexation plans stipulate zoning the land as agricultural, but the property owner would rather become part of North Charleston, which historically has taken a more relaxed, cooperative approach with developers.

That's in contrast to Charleston, which has agreed to an urban growth boundary that prevents the city from expanding outward. Mayor John Tecklenburg’s philosophy is to plan for growth within existing limits, Lindsey said.

“The city is annexing in the plantation district, not to develop but to preserve and protect historic rural lands,” Lindsey said. “I don’t think everyone realizes that.”

North Charleston officials says it's insulting to think they won't do a responsible job annexing the site. The property owner, the Whitfield family, has been largely silent.

These large-scale turf wars are nothing new for the Lowcountry. Charleston annexed Daniel Island in a surprise move in the early 1990s and was part of a tug of war over the large "Watson Hill" tract in West Ashley a decade later.

On the other side of Charleston County, Mount Pleasant also has seen battles where a developer prefers the county's approach to zoning but also needs the town's water and sewer service.

In Carolina Park in 2004, the developer planned up to 1,750 homes and apartments and 1.2 million square feet of commercial space — more than town officials wanted to see. But the developer got the zoning in the county. When the town tried to use its water and sewer service as leverage, the developer sought permission to build its own sewer plant. The town eventually caved in and accepted the county's zoning.

"It puts local governments in a weak position when it comes to managing and planning the growth of their community," Town Administrator Eric DeMoura said. "Once you get 3 to 4 units per acre because you had to take that deal, that sets the development trend. The next one that comes, it's going to be difficult to say, 'No, you only get 2 units per acre.' "

Filling doughnut holes

Outside the Lowcountry, few cities and towns have fought that kind of fight. Instead, most mayors and city planners see the bigger issue as annexing properties they already surround.

These so-called "doughnut holes" exist in all but a handful of the state’s 271 cities and towns, Slatton said. No one has an exact count.

But many get a glimpse of this reality. On Thursday mornings in Charleston, garbage trucks drive down the narrow streets of Live Oak Avenue, a tree-lined street in the Ashley Forest neighborhood in the Avondale area.

One truck is there to grab dark green City of Charleston trash cans. Another truck picks up dark blue St. Andrews Public Service District trash.

Tecklenburg’s philosophy has been not to persuasively or aggressively annex those residential tracts, Lindsey said.

"We do want to close doughnut holes whenever possible," he said, "but we rely on property owners to petition the city first."

While state law allows cities to take in some properties without their owners' consent, if enough neighbors petition for annexation, it's rare for cities to annex property whose owner doesn't want it.

And a sort of truce has emerged. In Sumter, the city provides fire protection countywide. Greenville has forged similar agreements. 

"We work close with the county. We look for ways to work together," McElveen said. "We haven’t always been that way.”

Mount Pleasant has a contract to provide police protection for all its unincorporated doughnut holes, but the county chips in only $150,000 toward the town police department's $10 million budget.

Are people mooching?

There's a simple reason why few city officials criticize property owners in doughnut holes: the city almost certainly would need their consent to annex them.

But the reality is that across South Carolina, thousands of property owners benefit from the cities that surround them — even though they pay no property taxes or business licenses to these cities.

Norrell, D-Lancaster, said that's partly why she filed her bill.

"If someone’s house catches on fire and they’re in the enclave, and if you don’t send your fire department, it looks really bad," she said. "The reality is most municipalities do serve these enclaves even if they don’t get revenue from the taxpayers. That’s unfair to the people who are paying the municipal taxes."

It's less of an issue in cities like Greenville and Hilton Head Island, which have few or no doughnut holes, but with little to no help from the state, other cities have had to find their own way.

Before Keith Summey became mayor of North Charleston in the mid-1990s, the city's Public Service District — which comprised much of the southern end of the city — warred with the city. Summey said one of his greatest accomplishments as mayor was striking a compromise in which district residents pay taxes to the district, then the district pays the city for sanitation and fire services. 

People who live in the PSD also benefit from the city's parks but only because of the city's intergovernmental agreement with the Cooper River Parks and Playground. 

"Whatever went on in those areas, people called North Charleston," Summey said. "If we take the brunt of the responsibility when it's not ours, then it should become part of us."

There are still about 3,000 people across 1,200 households who still live in the district but not in the city limits. For homes valued at $100,000, those residents pay $48 more per year in taxes. For businesses valued at $100,000, an additional $72 is spent each year. 

"We don't force them in," Summey said. "We try to encourage them to come in." 

Summerville Mayor Wiley Johnson said there is a tremendous amount of potential for the town to grow its tax base without expanding outward.

"All you gotta do is look at the map of Summerville and you will see there is a very large amount of land that would traditionally be called 'inside the city limits,' but it’s not," he said. "It’s a doughnut hole."

About 50,000 people live in the town of Summerville. If the town closed up its doughnut holes, the population would be close to 65,000. Beyond doughnut holes, the town lacks a municipal grasp on unincorporated areas, where thousands more people live.

"Stress on a town like ours comes from people who surround us and really identify with us," he said. "By my reckoning, we have somewhere around 150,000 people who identify with Summerville."

And only about a third of them are in the town. 

Johnson described a future development near town limits that has the potential for 1,300 residences. 

"That's quite significant," he said. "You might actually come up with a significant percentage that could increase the town. We haven't had anything like that in the past five years."

If Johnson could, he would use reformed annexation law to bring developments and commercial businesses into the town. He said he's not so concerned with the homeowners who live in doughnut holes and mooch off town services. 

That's because residences pay for services at a lower rate than commercial properties, which pay a higher tax rate. 

"Tax reform is way overdue in South Carolina," he said. "I don’t see that happening very soon." 

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Reach Robert Behre at 843-937-5771. Follow him on Twitter @RobertFBehre.

Hannah Alani is a reporter at The Post and Courier covering race, immigration and rural life across the Palmetto State. Before graduating from Indiana University and moving to Charleston in 2017, her byline appeared in The New York Times.

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