South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Gov. McMaster calls for luxury ‘ecoresort’ plan for SC barrier island to be rejected
August 19th, 2020

By Emily Williams, Post and Courier

Gov. Henry McMaster is calling on a Lowcountry zoning board to reject plans to build a luxury resort on an undeveloped barrier island.

The development could have a “detrimental impact” on the state’s natural resources and some South Carolina taxpayers, McMaster wrote in a letter Tuesday to the Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeals.

Gov. Henry McMaster is calling on a Lowcountry zoning board to reject plans to build a luxury resort on an undeveloped barrier island.

The development could have a “detrimental impact” on the state’s natural resources and some South Carolina taxpayers, McMaster wrote in a letter Tuesday to the Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeals.

For any tourist accommodations to be built there, the plans have to square with the principles of ecotourism, according to county rules. In his letter, McMaster argued that the proposed resort was “plainly inconsistent” with those requirements.

The island’s owners are seeking to build several dozen villas, wellness centers, restaurants and an “earth lab” and cooking school.

Thailand-based luxury resort operator Six Senses has been named as their intended collaborator. The resort as planned would cost about $100 million to build.

“Even a smaller version of this project would not be acceptable, in my opinion,” McMaster said in his letter. “Quite simply, I don’t think such developments are what our people had in mind when they envisioned ‘ecotourism.’”

McMaster called out other issues that local groups have raised alarms about for months, including Bay Point’s status as a nesting habitat for sea turtles and an Audubon-designated Important Bird Area.

He also addressed the island’s vulnerability to erosion, which has been a key issue raised by environmental groups like the Coastal Conservation League and the South Carolina Environmental Law Project.

Like any other barrier island, Bay Point is constantly experiencing shifting sands and is vulnerable to hurricanes.

Concerns have also been raised about the infrastructure needed to support a resort of that size, especially given the fact that there is no development there now. McMaster said in his letter that the energy, sewage and water needs of the resort were not “sufficiently accounted for” in the proposal submitted to the county.

“Beaufort County residents could end up paying for the tremendous beach management costs resulting from erosion, as well as the emergency services necessary to constructing such a project,” the governor wrote.

At least half a dozen Lowcountry organizations, including the Port Royal Sound Foundation, Beaufort County Open Land Trust and the Hilton Head Island Land Trust have issued public statements against the plans for Bay Point.

Members of the native Gullah/Geechee community, who have used the waters around Bay Point as a fishing ground for generations, have also asked for a rejection of the resort plans.

An online petition started by the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition has continued to draw more signatures in the months since it was first posted late last year. About 3,000 people have signed in the last several weeks for a total of more than 24,200 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.

McMaster wrote in his letter this week that he agrees with the statements made by Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, about the potential damage the development would cause to their community.

“This is a living history we do not want to lose,” McMaster wrote.

Developers, who include longtime island owner Philippe Cahen and Tim Pitcher and Art Krebs of Louisville, Ky.-based Luckett and Farley Development LLC, have maintained that their plans are true “ecotourism.”

County staff determined earlier this year that the proposal met Beaufort’s ecotourism definition and could be allowed to advance to the zoning board.

That decision came several months after Beaufort County community development director Eric Greenway wrote to developers in December that “after careful review,” he had found their plans weren’t ecotourism.

A revised plan was submitted to the county with the help of Jon Bruno, the executive director of a group called the International Ecotourism Society, or TIES, which wrote the ecotourism definition used in the county’s code.

Bruno, who was paid to help write the revamped proposal document, gave his endorsement of the project as an eco-friendly enterprise, and Greenway said in early May that the Bay Point plan could be called ecotourism.

The Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeals was scheduled to review the plans in July, but that meeting was postponed. The board’s August meeting was also canceled, so Bay Point plans could, at the earliest, be reviewed in September.

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