In December of last year, this blog discussed a South Carolina Supreme Court case in which the Court called the Town of Awendaw’s annexation attempt “nefarious conduct”.* The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the Circuit Court’s decision that the annexation attempt was void ab initio.**
The Town of Awendaw’s annexation of a ten-foot wide, 1.25 mile-long parcel of land within beautiful Francis Marion National Forest was challenged by two individuals and the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.
The sole question before the Supreme Court last year was whether the challengers had standing to contest the annexation in a case where the “100 percent method” of annexation is used, meaning all property owners petition the municipality to have their property annexed.
The case involved three parcels of land serving as links in a chain necessary to satisfy the contiguity requirement of annexation. The first link is the ten-foot strip managed by the United States Forest Service. The second link is owned by the Mt. Nebo AME Church, and the third link is approximately 360 acres of unimproved real estate surrounded by the National Forest on three sides and owned by Defendant EBC, LLC.
In the fall of 2003, the Town sought to annex the ten-foot strip which required a petition signed by the Forest Service. Town representatives sent the Forest Service four letters seeking approval. Through verbal discussions, the Town learned the Forest Service was opposed to annexations because of their impact on the Service’s ability to conduct controlled fire burns. Additionally, the Forest Service indicated any petition would have to come from Washington, D.C., officials, a process that might take several years.
The Town annexed the property anyway in 2004, relying on a 1994 letter from a Forest Service representative, stating it had “no objection” to annexing several strips of property in the same vicinity. However, the Town had previously stated that it realized this letter was unclear.
In 2009, EBC, LLC requested that Awendaw annex its property, and the Town passed an ordinance annexing that property and simultaneously rezoning it as a “planned development” to permit residential and commercial development. In annexing the EBC property, the Town relied on the ten-foot National Forest strip as well as the church property. Without either component, there would be no contiguity and annexation would be impossible.
In November of 2009, the petitioners filed a complaint against the Town and EBC alleging, among other things, that the Town lacked authority to annex the ten-foot strip of National Forest property because the Forest Service never submitted an annexation petition. The Town and EBC moved for partial summary judgment contending the petitioners lacked standing and that the statute of limitations had run.
At trial, a surveyor testified that the 1994 Forest Service letter referred to a different strip of land. The Town’s administrator responded that the Town had used the 1994 letter at least seven times, and that he believed the letter incorporated the property in question. The petitioners testified they were concerned about potential harm caused by developing the property, including damage to unique species of animals. They testified that they were also concerned that the proposed development would threaten the Forest Service’s ability to conduct the controlled burns necessary to maintain the health of the forest.
The trial court found that the petitioners had standing and concluded that the annexations were void because the Town never received the required petition from the Forest Service. The Court of Appeals concluded that the petitioners lacked standing.
In analyzing the standing issue, the South Carolina Supreme Court discussed its prior cases that held “non-statutory parties” (meaning, non-property owners of the annexed properties) lacked standing to challenge a purportedly unauthorized annexation. Those cases, however, were premised on good faith attempts by annexing bodies, according to the Court.
The Supreme Court did not believe the General Assembly intended in establishing the statutory framework for annexation to preclude standing where there is a credible allegation that the annexing body engaged in “deceitful conduct”. The Court held that a party that can demonstrate the annexing body engaged in “nefarious conduct” has standing to challenge the annexation.
The Court also discussed the public importance exception to the standing rule. This exception states that standing may be found when an issue is of such public importance as to require its resolution for future guidance. The Court stated that the petitioners had satisfied the “future guidance” prong of the public importance exception because the Town had used the 1994 letter numerous times and fully intended to use it again.
The case was remanded to the Court of Appeals to address the Towns’ remaining arguments. The Court of Appeals, apparently noting the Supreme Court’s strong language and robust opinions, reversed course and affirmed the lower court’s ruling that the annexation was void.
*Vicary v. Town of Awendaw, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 27855 (December 19, 2018).
**South Carolina Court of Appeals Opinion No. 5645 (May 1, 2019).