The city of Charleston prevailed yet again in its legal challenge to the incorporation of James Island, as the S.C. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that the town was not properly formed.

But town officials found a ray of hope in the court order because the justices ruled that the state law enabling the town to form was constitutional.

James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey said the town will appeal and, if that fails, he will work to incorporate a fourth time.

"We are going to continue to operate as usual until such time that the Supreme Court tells the lower court that we have to stop," he said.

The ruling marks the third time since 1993 that the unincorporated area of James Island has tried to form a town only to see its efforts undone by a city legal challenge and the Supreme Court.

What the mayors say

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, who was meeting with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden in Washington on Monday, hailed the court's decision.

"Long range, this community is better with the city of Charleston growing to include people whom it directly serves," Riley said. "The formation of another city is fragmented and duplicated government that is in nobody's best interest."

Riley vowed to cooperate with Woolsey and other town officials to dissolve the town "as has been done in the past." The city has more than 17,000 residents on the island, compared with about 18,000 in the town.

Riley also invited town residents whose property borders the city to seek annexation, telling them, "I believe you will find our tax rates and full array of quality services a good bargain. ... For James Island residents who do not wish to become part of the city, the city looks forward to working with the James Island Public Service District so that all of James Island is well-served."

The city of Charleston -- whose legal appeals also undid two earlier James Island incorporations -- raised two issues. One, the city argued the state law allowing incorporated areas to cross public lands was unconstitutional. Two, the city argued that the town's proposed area was not contiguous.

The court ruled for the town on the first question but agreed with the city that the town was not contiguous.

"We hold town's petition was not sufficient under section 5-1-24, and therefore we reverse the order of the circuit court upholding town's most recent attempt at incorporation," the order said.

South Carolina law requires areas within five miles of an existing municipality to first attempt to join that municipality before creating their own town or city. That rule can be waived if a proposed town has 5,000 or more residents.

Woolsey said the city of Charleston annexed a property along Woodland Shores Drive and that apparently blocked off the contiguity of Riverland Terrace and other northern island neighborhoods. During a new incorporation attempt, those neighborhoods could be left out.

"In my judgment, we will go forward reincorporating immediately under the most realistic scenario to pass muster," he said. "I anticipate the town will be re-formed post haste."

Woolsey said he believes in the town because "in my view, it's a matter of self-government. The people of James Island should choose how we operate."

Riley said he feels the town is a bad idea because town residents use the city's parks, recreation facilities, festivals and other services, while the town's existence costs the city money.

The city has spent more than $200,000 on its legal challenge, and Riley said the city loses about $700,000 in county-shared revenue because the town exists. Other municipalities also receive less.

What others are saying

Yvonne Thomas, a James Island town resident, said the news was a big blow. "If they try again, I'll favor that," she said.

Lynwood Taylor, who has lived on the island for 38 years, agreed. "I think Joe Riley... well, I won't even use the words that I think of him."

Jimmy Harley said he worked as a firefighter years ago and had hoped the city would prevail because its firefighters are paid more. But he also supports the town these days. "I think it's kind of ridiculous that Mayor Riley is still trying to fight this."

But others had mixed feelings. James Island resident Page Meyer said her life will be easier without the town because her landscaping business will need to buy one less business license and face less bureaucracy.

Teresa Miller dropped by the James Island Town Hall on Monday afternoon to discuss a neighborhood nuisance. She said she supports the town, though she expects taxes and fees will rise if it remains in business.

"You can't have your own town without expecting taxes to go up," she said. "Mount Pleasant has its own thing. North Charleston has its own thing. What is it about James Island that he (Mayor Riley) can't let go of?"

City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson, whose district includes most of the city's part of James Island, said the city and town have had a better working relationship recently, and that will continue to be her priority.

"I'm going to sit back and see how things naturally take their course and just continue what I'm doing," she said. "My money is on another incorporation attempt, and if that's the path they choose, it's not my prerogative to stand in front of them."

To try again, town backers would have to get signatures from at least 15 percent of eligible voters within the proposed town limits.

Town Councilman Carter McMillan, who might not be included in a new town incorporation because he lives in Riverland Terrace, said, "I can assure you the wheels are already turning for incorporation No. 4."

Town Councilman Leonard Blank agreed. "We're getting closer to seeing what the real town of James Island is going to look like."

Town timeline

1993: Voters in much of the unincorporated area of James Island narrowly vote to form a new town, though Charleston Mayor Joe Riley doubts the legality of the move.

1995: The city of Charleston's lawsuit against the town goes before a circuit judge, who rules in the city's favor. The town appeals.

1996: The S.C. Supreme Court dissolves the town, saying it was created illegally from nine, noncontiguous areas separated by waterways and marshlands already in the cities of Charleston and Folly Beach.

1997: As legal wrangling continues, a circuit judge orders the town's checkbook shut down.

1999: The Legislature debates a measure that could help James Island and other areas incorporate by using marsh and waterways. The bill passes the following year.

2000: Urged on by Mary Clark --who becomes the face of town supporters after Mayor Joan Sooy loses her office when the town is dissolved -- talk of a second incorporation attempt begins to brew.

2002: James Islanders vote by a more than 2-1 margin to incorporate again. Clark is elected mayor. The city of Charleston sues again, claiming that a new state law passed amounts to unconstitutional special legislation because it only applies to James Island.

2003: A lower court rules against the town, agreeing with the city's legal arguments and leaving the town in limbo.

2004: The Supreme Court again rules against the town. Its assets are dissolved and redistributed. Talk of a third incorporation attempt heats up.

2005: The second town formally dissolves as Clark removes the flag from a Town Hall that soon becomes a pizza parlor. The Legislature works on a new bill designed to address the Supreme Court's issues with its earlier law.

2006: James Islanders vote yet again to form a town. Clark is elected mayor again. The city files a new legal challenge, arguing the 2005 law is bad policy because it allows towns to incorporate property separated by publicly owned land.

2008: A circuit judge upholds the town's incorporation. The city appeals the ruling to the Supreme Court.

2010: After a series of controversial moves by Mayor Clark, Citadel professor Bill Woolsey defeats her and other candidates to become the town's new mayor.

2011: The Supreme Court rules against the town yet again, claiming it was not contiguous and therefore not legal. But the court upholds the state statute behind the incorporation bid. Woolsey and other town officials vow to try a fourth time.

The ruling at a glance

What does the court order mean?

The Supreme Court ruled that James Island was not legally incorporated. The town likely will be dissolved if its final legal appeals don't succeed.

Does this mean that right now, there is no town?

The town and its nine employees will remain in business until the legal appeals run their course.

What's down the road?

If the town loses its appeals, its supporters are expected to attempt to incorporate for a fourth time.

What happens to residents if THE TOWN is dissolved?

County government would be expected to take over planning, zoning and public works services now handled by the town. Some town residents -- such as those in Riverland Terrace -- might not be part of a fourth incorporation effort.

These residents could be annexed by the town later because annexation laws differ from incorporation laws.

Some town property owners could seek to join the city of Charleston. The city said Monday it will accept annexation petitions from those whose property is contiguous to the city.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.