South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

$100M resort plan for undeveloped SC barrier island isn’t ‘ecotourism,’ county staff says
December 20th, 2019

By Emily Williams, Post & Courier

Beaufort County staff says that a resort development planned for an undeveloped island shouldn’t be allowed under its definition of “ecotourism.”

Proposed plans for Bay Point Island stirred up controversy in the coastal community in the fall. The island’s owners are seeking to build a roughly $100 million resort on the remote site.

In a letter shared with The Post and Courier, Eric Greenway, community development director for Beaufort County, wrote that “after careful review,” county staff decided that the proposal didn’t meet their requirements.

“The plan seems to put accommodations and resort-type activities as the primary use, and sustainability and ecological promotion would be secondary,” Greenway said Friday.

To meet the county’s ecotourism definition, those priorities would need to be reversed.

Additionally, Greenway said, the proposal contradicts the ecotourism use’s purpose — to preserve ecologically sensitive areas — since it involves building on a barrier island that doesn’t have any infrastructure.

“You’re developing a very ecologically sensitive area under the guise of ecotourism,” he said. “We think that violates the purpose and the intent.”

Rikki Parker, south coast office director for the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League, said that her organization, which has been a vocal opponent of the plans, was “really pleased” with county staff’s response.

“This is an extremely valuable, undeveloped barrier island,” Parker said. “This is a place that should stay free from any infrastructure and development.”

Jessie White, a staff attorney for the South Carolina Environmental Law Project also applauded the staff’s decision to deny an “ill-conceived project.”

The island, which is northeast of Hilton Head in Beaufort County, is accessible only by boat or aircraft. The only structures there now are a small cottage, a pier and a dock.

A resort plan was first proposed there several years ago, but the island’s principal owner, European investor Philippe Cahen, opted to hold back for several years. Another one of the island’s owners, Tim Pitcher, told The Post and Courier that time was used to plan a more sustainable development.

The resort, which they plan to develop with the Thailand-based resort company Six Senses, would include about 50 villas and host around 100 guests at a time.

Guests would arrive by boat, and a helipad would be installed for emergencies. Electricity would come from a solar field, and guests would get around by foot, bicycle or on small electric vehicles like golf carts.

The primary concern locals, county officials and environmental groups have had with the project is its location. Since Bay Point is a barrier island, its shores are always shifting.

The island has also been designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society, and it’s a nesting habitat for sea turtles.

Members of the Gullah-Geechee community also spoke out against the plans. The waters around Bay Point have long been a fishing ground for Gullah-Geechee residents on nearby St. Helena Island.

Those waters are public, which the opening of a resort would not change, but Marquetta Goodwine, who goes by Queen Quet as the chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, has said the community would still see “irreversible negative impacts” if the resort is built.

“The proposed development...is incompatible with the Gullah/Geechee way of life and the ecological balance to that highly erosional area,” reads a petition from the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition that had collected more than 2,600 online signatures.

The island’s owners will meet with members of county staff again on Jan. 15, Greenway said. The owners also have an opportunity to submit an appeal that would be heard by a county zoning board.

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