S.C. town fights to keep National Forest land it illegally annexed

Longleaf pines are key part of the Francis Marion National Forest ecosystem, which is being increasingly encroached upon by illegal annexations by the Town of Awendaw. (© Jim Waite)

Today SELC argued on behalf of two South Carolina taxpayers and a conservation group who are urging the South Carolina Court of Appeals to agree that the Town of Awendaw’s annexation of land in the Francis Marion National Forest for development was unlawful.

SELC and Charleston attorney Jeff Leath represent the taxpayers and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League. In today’s hearing, they sought to affirm a lower court ruling that found the annexations illegal.

At stake in this case is a section of land called the “Nebo tract,” spanning hundreds of acres, all virtually encircled by the Francis Marion National Forest. The forest is one of South Carolina’s ecological crown jewels and a haven for hunters and hikers. In 2009, Awendaw officials illegally annexed the Nebo tract for the possibility of intense residential and commercial development.

The taxpayers and the conservation group contended a development like the one proposed would make forest management difficult, if not impossible. The forest’s longleaf pine ecosystem – one of the largest remaining on the planet – supports the federally endangered red-cockaded woodpecker and the threatened flatwoods salamander, among other rare species. Regular burning is required to keep the system healthy, but development in the forest would make prescribed fire far more difficult to carry out.

Further, they argued, the annexation was illegal. Annexation is allowed under South Carolina law only if the parcel is connected to the town’s border, and only if the property owner has asked to be annexed.

Awendaw declared it was “connected” to the Nebo tract because it had previously annexed a lengthy 10-foot wide strip of the national forest that poked through the woods and touched the parcel. But a circuit court judge ruled the 10-foot strip was illegally annexed because the U.S. Forest Service never asked for the land to be annexed. At a trial in 2014, SELC showed that the Forest Service never petitioned for annexation, even after town leaders repeatedly badgered it to make that request. Town officials then asserted that a decade-old letter, in which the Forest Service did not object to annexation of other areas in the forest, was enough to move forward.

“The trial court found the town’s claim of having received a petition from federal officials was false,” said Blan Holman, the SELC Managing Attorney arguing the case.

Since the connecting strip of land had never been annexed, the lower court ruled the Nebo tract annexation was not valid.

Awendaw appealed. The town is essentially saying, according to Holman, “Citizens have no right to challenge the annexation decision because the issue isn’t important to the public.” But Holman argued today that “this issue is of utmost public importance because the town admits it plans to continue annexing parts of the Francis Marion using the same unlawful methods. Development in the forest will degrade its value to the public, and as a vitally important wildlife habitat.”

A decision is not expected immediately.

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