Share This Post
Why Charleston Is the Way it Is: How South Carolina’s Annexation Rules Shaped the City
What does the City of Charleston look like from above? That is, what are its boundaries? You might think that the City of Charleston comprises the peninsula, West Ashley to the west, and Daniel Island to the northeast. That would be a decent guess. But it’s wrong.
Take a look at the actual boundaries in this zoning map here. As you can see, Charleston’s city limits are all over the place and the city itself is surprisingly big. In fact, the City of Charleston is 156.6 square miles – a large area for a population of a little over 130,000. To put that in perspective, that’s about half the area of New York City, comprised of the five boroughs with around 8.4 million people, in just 302.6 square miles.
Why in the world is Charleston so big, and how did it get that way?
Adjacent and Contiguous
The City of Charleston is the way it is due to a combination of how aggressive it is in its desire to grow combined with South Carolina’s annexation rules.
Back before the mid-1970s, it wasn’t the county governments that were in charge of things, but the senators. So the legislature made it difficult for municipalities to annex land in order to keep the power in the hands of the senators and state officials. This is why South Carolina doesn’t have big cities the way that nearby North Carolina does with Charlotte (metro population over 2.5 million), or Florida with Miami (6.2 million).
This changed in 1975 with the passage of the Home Rule Act in which county governments were created, giving them the control of unincorporated land. (Read more about how this act affected the state here on our blog.) But the laws making annexation difficult were still on the books.
In South Carolina, land must be “adjacent” and “contiguous” in order for it to be annexed, meaning both pieces of land (the municipality and the land to be annexed) must be next to each other and share a border. In some other states, non-adjacent land may be annexed, which obviously makes it easier for municipalities to grow. Many other states also allow for “corridor annexation” which allows contiguity to be established by use of railroads, waterways, and other rights of ways. However, the definition of “contiguous” for the purposes of annexation in South Carolina explicitly states that contiguity cannot be established this way.
Because land to be annexed needs to be adjacent and contiguous to a municipality in South Carolina, cities and towns were greatly restricted in their ability to grow for many years.
Then the city of Columbia changed everything.
The Revolution of the 10-Foot Wide Strip
In the early 1990s, Columbia did something incredible. It wanted to annex a nearby area where a large mall was being built, as it would be a financial boon to the city. The only trouble was, the mall was 9 miles away, and the land it was on was not adjacent and contiguous to the existing city limits. So the city annexed a 10-foot-wide strip along I-26 that connected them to the mall, and voila, they were now adjacent and contiguous.
As to be expected, this ploy went through a lot of lawsuits at the time, but it withstood them all. Since then, other municipalities have followed suit and have used this concept of the thin strip of land to connect themselves to land they want to annex.
Petition for Annexation
There are a couple big benefits to a city to annex land, notably an increased tax basis and more control over how the land within its limits will be developed. A large amount of land in City of Charleston limits right now is undeveloped, and the City will have a say in how it develops in the future.
For the residents of the land in question, some may wish to remain outside of city limits and thus pay fewer taxes. But many often do want to be annexed, because while they do pay more in taxes, they also get benefits like access to utilities.
How do property owners get their land annexed? In order for a municipality to annex land in South Carolina, all or some of the owners of the land must petition in order to be annexed. There are a number of ways for annexation to occur by law, including annexation of land that’s wholly owned by a school district or by the federal government, for example. Another way to annex unincorporated land is to rely on the 75-75 method. As long as 75% of the landowners who own at least 75% of the assed value of the land want to be annexed, that land can be annexed even against the will of the remaining 25%.
Whether it’s a school district, the federal government, individual property owners in an area, or other landowners, they must sign a petition requesting annexation in order for the annexation to proceed.
A 10-Foot Strip Too Far
Several cities in the state have been aggressive in growing their limits through annexation, including Charleston, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia. But Awendaw took it a huge step further when it tried to annex some land in 2003.
Awendaw wanted to annex some land owned by the Mt. Nebo AME Church (Church Tract) but it was not adjacent and contiguous to existing Awendaw city limits. So it decide to do what any savvy South Carolina city would do and use the 10-foot-strip method to annex it.
The 10-foot-strip Awendaw had its eye on was a 1.25-mile-long piece of land in the National Forest managed by the United States Forest Service. Awendaw sent letters to the Forest Service to get its approval for annexation, as it needed a signed petition to proceed. They never got approval, and in fact the Forest Service wasn’t in favor of giving up the rights to that land because it would impede their ability to conduct controlled fire burns. The Forest Service also said a petition would need to come from federal officials in D.C. and the process could take several years.
Awendaw Decided to Annex the Land Anyway
That’s right, even though Awendaw never got a petition from the owners of that 10-foot strip of land, it went ahead and passed an ordinance under the 100% petition method in May 2004, relying on an old letter from 1994 for its authority. The letter was from a representative of the Forest Service who said there was “no objection” to annexing parcels of land in the vicinity – though it did not reference the particular land in question.
With this new addition of land, Awendaw then passed an ordinance annexing the Church Tract (for which it did receive a legitimate petition from church representatives).
In 2009, another piece of land referred to as the Nebo Tract by the SC Court of Appeals petitioned for annexation, and in October of that year Awendaw passed an ordinance to do so. This 360-acre parcel of land was contiguous to Awendaw through the Church Tract and the 10-foot strip.
This move was challenged the following month. In Nov 2009, Lynne Vicary, Kent Prause, and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League filed a complaint, stating that Awendaw did not have the authority to annex the 10-foot strip because the Forest Service never submitted a petition for annexation.
The circuit court found that Awendaw’s annexation of the 10-foot strip was void ab initio – invalid from the start – and therefore the later annexation of the Nebo Tract was also void ab initio.
The case went to the SC Supreme Court, which determined that the Respondents had standing and then sent it down to the Court of Appeals to address the remaining issues. It reinforced the fact that “an annexation is complete only upon the acceptance of a petition requesting annexation.” (Emphasis theirs.)
The bottom line is, Awendaw got caught with its hand in the cookie jar and the South Carolina courts are not having it. (Read the full decision here.)
Watch This Space
Although Awendaw greatly overstepped its authority by annexing the Forest Service’s land, it seems that the underlying tactic of using a 10-foot strip of land to connect to desirable land is a legitimate way for municipalities to grow in South Carolina. How much more can Charleston grow? If it continues on its way, it will likely keep annexing land until it’s surrounded on all sides by incorporated land it can’t annex. Keep an eye on Charleston’s borders.