Charleston and North Charleston are fighting over a huge territory in West Ashley in an epic annexation clash not seen since Charleston took Daniel Island in the early 1990s. 

But when the city annexed the island, development there was seen as a natural step after Interstate 526 was built. 

What makes the battle over the Whitfield tract, a forested area off S.C. Highway 61, different is that the outcome will shape the future of an existing historic district and of nearby subdivisions already experiencing major traffic and drainage problems.

Whoever prevails in court ultimately is expected to decide if this area remains in its historic, rural state or becomes yet another new suburb instead.

Charleston County and the city of Charleston previously agreed that new developments wouldn't extend that far into the rural part of West Ashley, but they never anticipated North Charleston might attempt to hop over a city boundary to expand its territory there.

If North Charleston can successfully annex the sites, their development seems inevitable. 

The question is how that would affect traffic on Highway 61 and flooding in the Church Creek drainage basin to the south.  

Then there's history to consider. The land in question is in the Ashley River Historic District, where sites such as Drayton Hall and Magnolia Plantation and Gardens have preserved riverfront properties first settled in the 17th and early 18 centuries. 

Kathy Rike's family owns more than 5,000 acres near the prizedWhitfield tract, so she's as invested as anyone in the area's future. 

"The traffic on Highway 61 is already horrible, and you have the flooding problem with the Church Creek basin, and it would only add to that," Rike said. "From a conservation standpoint, we want to keep it pristine."

Here's a breakdown of what's at stake: 

Historic, congested highway 

Charleston City Council set in motion a process last week to annex a total of about 6,000 acres along Highway 61, one of the largest annexation attempts in the city's history. Two parcels — the 30-acre Millbrook Plantation LLC and the 2,200-acre Whitfield tract — were included without either property owner's permission.

The city is using the 75 percent rule, which means it can take properties without the owners' consent when 75 percent of surrounding property owners with 75 percent of the total land value request to join the city. 

The move was aimed at thwarting North Charleston's westward push. In October, the Whitfields annexed Runnymede Plantation into North Charleston and then gave the city an acre within their 2,200-tract on the other side of Highway 61. After Charleston's move to try to take the tract, the family petitioned North Charleston to annex it.

If North Charleston succeeds, it would plan for the future of a property large enough to handle 15,000 homes.

A development of that size would exacerbate traffic problems on Highway 61, a scenic two-lane highway lined by trees. 

Most mornings, commuters sit in standstill traffic from the Village Green neighborhood, past Bees Ferry Road, all the way to U.S. Highway 17's Ashley River bridge. 

Summey said developers would comply with a traffic review as required by the state. Any development might have to wait until major road projects, such as the proposed extensions of Interstate 526 and the Glenn McConnell Parkway, are completed, he said. 

The Glenn McConnell project would create a new, wider connection between Charleston and Summerville, allowing traffic to bypass Highway 61. 

"We need to expand and build the new connector roads that have been in the plans for years," Summey said.

That's a project the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce has supported for years, said Mary Graham, the chamber's chief strategy officer.

"A project like that is a key piece of infrastructure," she said. "We have traffic problems across the state because we have not kept up with the growth and population in our state and region." 

A key to reducing flooding? 

The Whitfield tract sits just north of a few Charleston subdivisions that have seen debilitating floods three years in a row, because they're in the same Church Creek drainage basin that backs up in a heavy rain.

The city hired Weston & Sampson Engineering in June to restudy the Church Creek basin, and the engineers looked beyond the city limits to find the storm water's natural flow. They learned that about 75 percent of the Whitfield tract ultimately flows into Church Creek.

“It’s in the upper part of the Church Creek drainage basin,” Horner said.

Head consultant Bob Horner said rain falling on the Whitfield property collects in the lower areas and flows downstream towards Shadowmoss and Hickory Farms on its way to the Ashley River.

The engineers are still at work, but they have shared some findings with City Council.

“One of the important components of our plan is collecting storm water from the northern part of the drainage basin ... (and) keeping it from coming down stream and also diverting it out of the Church Creek basin,” Horner said. “One of the best areas to do that is on this Whitfield property.”

Horner said the engineers assumed the city and county would collaborate on the the study’s recommendations regarding the Whitfield tract. With North Charleston in the mix, Horner is not sure how that might affect things.

Summey, however, downplayed any prospect for further harm and said North Charleston is up to the challenge of managing a development's runoff.

"We are very capable of doing that,” he said. “I don't think you can deter people from developing property they own because the property next door was not developed properly.”

History, conservation

The Whitfield's 2,200-acre tract once was part of several plantations, including one run by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a Revolutionary War veteran who helped author the U.S. Constitution.

Ruins of slave settlements and early rice cultivation surround the tract. The Andrew Parish's first schoolhouse might have been built there, too. 

The Hastie family owns Magnolia Plantation, which at one point included the acreage that Whitfield now owns. The family sold the tract to a phosphate mining company after the Civil War ended, and the Whitfields eventually purchased it a few decades ago.

Preservationists and historians worry about what would be lost if that land is developed.

Craig Garrison, a local anthropologist whose great uncle once worked with Floyd Whitfield, wanted to study the family's property. Whitfield said no.

"I tried to convince him that a survey of the landscape would benefit everyone," he said. "Recording these features and others will help protect the cultural and environmental integrity of the area."

Winslow Hastie, a descendant of the owners of Magnolia Plantation and the incoming chief executive officer of the Historic Charleston Foundation, said what's at stake is of national significance.

"This area, even beyond the urban growth boundary, has an extra layer of sensitivity given the historic significance of the corridor," he said. "There are reams of information in there." 

Tim Whitfield, Floyd Whitfield's son, has called the area a "beautiful corridor" and said his family and the city of North Charleston want to keep it that way. 

Hastie said he'd want some reassurance of that, regardless of which city ends up annexing the property.

"The municipality or the jurisdiction is irrelevant from my standpoint," he said. "The reason the alarm bells go off is because typically you annex a property to gain something. I would encourage and enjoy open communication and better understanding of their development plans, if there are any."

Even responsible development can tarnish the cultural uniqueness of a place, Drayton Hall President Carter Hudgins said. 

"It goes beyond just the Ashley River region," he said. "Why do people love Charleston? It's the history. It's the culture. That's not just downtown. Severe alteration of the landscape is going to go contrary to that love for place."

Jason Crowley of the Coastal Conservation League said he hopes North Charleston would adhere to the same urban growth boundary that the city and county of Charleston have set. The league also would like to see the property remain agricultural.

City spokesman Ryan Johnson said the city could consider a policy consistent with that boundary, and Summey said North Charleston has made a commitment to preservation before.

When the city annexed land east of the Ashley River, it took steps to protect views across the river and marsh from the historic plantations. Nobody asked the city to do this, he said. 

"We never got a 'thanks' for that," Summey said. 

Brenda Rindge contributed to this report. 

Reach Hannah Alani at 843-937-5428. Follow her on Twitter @HannahAlani.

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.

Abigail Darlington is a local government reporter focusing primarily on the City of Charleston. She previously covered local arts & entertainment, technology, innovation, tourism and retail for the Post and Courier.