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Watson Hill tract in North Charleston is sold, buyer plans some development

An Upstate real estate company has purchased most of the Watson Hill timber tract in the Ashley River Historic District and plans to develop a portion of the North Charleston property.

An affiliate of Spartanburg-based Johnson Development Associates paid WestRock Co. $14.3 million last week for about 4,000 acres along Highway 61, according to the Dorchester County Register of Deeds.

"We are excited about the purchase of Watson Hill," Geordy Johnson, the company's president and CEO, said in an emailed statement Monday. "We like buying land in the path of progress."

Details about any construction plans have not been finalized, he said. Development on Watson Hill is restricted by a legally binding conservation easement that WestRock put in place last year.

Johnson said the firm is reviewing what can be built on the land with North Charleston planning and zoning officials.

"Our timing will be based on our analysis of market conditions," he said. "We do intend to move the development forward in a timely manner if the feedback is positive. As landowners in the area, we appreciate responsible development, and we do not intend to ask to increase the density restrictions on the property."

A North Charleston spokesman did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The easement filing shows that at least 1,004 residential units can be built on sections of Watson Hill, which is next to historic Middleton Plantation.

Under a previous land owner, as many as 5,000 homes and a golf course were proposed. That plan was scuttled when WestRock predecessor MeadWestvaco Corp., which had sold the property in 2004, bought it back five years later and agreed to rework it.

The Coastal Conservation League, which fought North Charleston's annexation of the property for years, said it was notified last week of the Johnson Development deal. Jason Crowley, communities and transportation program director for the Charleston-based group, said the new owners want to "talk about their ideas, which is excellent."

"They do have some development plans, but we haven't seen them yet," he said Tuesday.

The Johnson family is a longtime major landholder in the nearby ACE Basin watershed. Last year, it paid WestRock $37 million for the 12,000-acre Spring Grove tract on the western edge of Charleston County as a timber and conservation investment.

Watson Hill was the site of a marathon annexation battle that began in 2004 and involved Summerville, Charleston and North Charleston, which ultimately prevailed in 2011.

The dispute rages on today. North Charleston is facing fresh opposition from Charleston and others over its effort to add to its tax base on that side of the Ashley River by annexing a 2,200-acre property for future development.

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