Awendaw wins by losing

Logging crew thin out the Francis Marion National Forest on the west side of U.S. Highway 17 about a mile north of the Nebo Church in Awendaw in 2009. (Jessica Johnson/File)

When Awendaw was incorporated in 1992, town leaders hoped to protect the sylvan rural area from Mount Pleasant's rapidly approaching suburban sprawl.

While it has done just that, ironically it has since annexed a large number of developable acres, which in themselves could be a threat to that goal and to the Francis Marion Forest, which surrounds them.

The town recently lost a lawsuit challenging one of those annexations. A state court said the annexation of the 356-acre Nebo tract wasn't handled in an acceptable manner.

So in a sense, Awendaw's loss in this lawsuit could actually be counted a victory, assuming the town's priority is to retain its rural quality of life.

Indeed, it's being considered good news even by some people who once supported the annexation of the Nebo Tract.

Former Awendaw mayor and town councilman Samuel Robinson, for example, said that in addition to concern about how the development of Nebo might have harmed the environment, he began to worry that the arrival of new residents would drive up land prices and taxes and eventually force out those whose families have lived in Awendaw for generations.

The Nebo tract is a particularly sensitive site for development, since it is adjacent to the national forest and the unspoiled Fairlawn tract, which will be preserved for conservation with money provided as wetlands mitigation by Boeing.

Nevertheless, Awendaw attorney Dwayne Green said the town will appeal the court's decision on the lawsuit, which was filed in 2009 by two Awendaw residents and the Coastal Conservation League.

So far, developers have not begun transforming some of the larger tracts annexed into the town of Awendaw over the years into subdivisions, even though they have been given permission to do so by the town.

If the court's ruling on Nebo holds up under appeal, it could encourage challenges to other annexations based on the town's method of annexing.

Property to be annexed must be adjacent to the town.

In one instance, the town claimed eligibility by first annexing a 10-foot-wide strip of the Francis Marion National Forest, which connected one property to the town.

In subsequent annexations, the town simply assumed it was fine with the Forest Service to annex similar 10-foot-wide strips of forest. Not so, say agency officials.

Regardless of how courts might rule on other annexations, Awendaw is in a unique position to adopt and implement good planning strategies for growth - to conserve the incredibly beautiful natural surroundings and the allure of rural living without sacrificing economic growth.

It might be that the town's unorthodox methods of annexing property will be ruled illegal and the town's size will shrink.

Or not.

Either way, now is the time - before developers mow down trees and clear acres for houses - to plan for a rural but prosperous future.

The Nebo Tract is a good start.