South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

SC Gov. McMaster urges Beaufort County board to reject Bay Point resort plans
August 19th, 2020

By Stephen Fastenau, The Beaufort Gazette

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster has weighed in on a proposal to build a high-end resort on a Beaufort County barrier island, urging the zoning board to reject the plans.

In a letter dated Tuesday, McMaster said the planned development goes against the state’s duty to protect natural resources important to tourism, is incompatible with the property’s zoning and outside the scope of the county’s comprehensive plan. His involvement elicited praise and surprise from environmentalists who said they have not known the state’s top elected official to so directly take a side on a development project.

“Even a smaller version of this project would not be acceptable, in my opinion,” McMaster wrote in a letter to Kevin Mack, vice chairman of the Zoning Board of Appeals. “Quite simply, I don’t think such developments are what our people had in mind when they envisioned ‘ecotourism.’”

The island’s owners and developers plan an eco-resort of villas, spas and restaurants on about 50 acres of the island off St. Helena Island in Port Royal Sound. Six Senses, a Thailand-based resort operator with remote getaways throughout the world, would lease the property.

The zoning board will decide whether the plans fit a special zoning use as ecotourism. The next chance for the board to consider Bay Point will be Sept. 24 after a vote this month was postponed.

County planning director Eric Greenway has said he intends to hold the meeting in person to allow the public the chance to comment. During the coronavirus outbreak, local government boards and commissions have moved largely to virtual meetings broadcast live online.

Developers have said the project will leave only a light footprint, with buildings set back from the beach, and will engage and educate visitors on the island’s environment and area culture. They have also promoted the project as an economic driver that will create numerous jobs.

A representative for the developers said Wednesday that McMaster’s letter was misinformed in that 50 bungalows are planned instead of the 60 referenced by the letter. The representative also said all county, state and federal requirements are being exceeded by the plans.

“We continue to believe this is a very important project for Beaufort County and for the state,” said Hilton Head Island attorney Tom Taylor, who working with the development group and called McMaster a friend. “We believe it will be beneficial for ecotourism in the state, and we are really very proud if it.”

After initially dismissing plans last year, county planning staff has since recommended the project move forward with conditions, including a conservation easement to prevent building on the remaining island property. Other conditions include a development agreement between the county and developers and the creation of a charitable foundation dedicated to the neighboring community culture.

Taylor said developers would address the county’s recommendations at the zoning board meeting.

McMaster’s objection echoes concerns from environmental groups and others who have long opposed the project.

The Coastal Conservation League provided various letters of opposition from local groups when the governor’s office reached out recently, South Coast Project Manager Juliana Smith said.

“It couldn’t have been said more plainly — the proposed resort would only bring irreparable harm to South Carolina’s natural and cultural resources while directly threatening Beaufort County taxpayers’ wallets with expensive infrastructure needs, emergency services, and beach management costs,” Smith said. “We maintain that the best thing for Bay Point is protecting it in perpetuity for all to enjoy.”

Amy Armstrong, executive director of the S.C. Environmental Law Project, said she couldn’t recall a governor stepping in so directly on a specific project. She noted McMaster’s opinions as attorney general that included environmental protections, his opposition to offshore drilling and that he recently vetoed a bill opponents said would weaken the state’s Beachfront Management Act.

But McMaster hasn’t publicly taken a side on other high-profile projects opposed by environmental groups, such as a proposal to build homes on Captain Sam’s Spit on the southern end of Kiawah Island.

“I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, but I don’t recall any time where a governor has stepped in and voiced such serious concern over a development project like this, in such a public fashion,” Armstrong said. “I think to me it’s quite remarkable and powerful for the governor to have done so here.”

Asked why McMaster chose to get involved, a governor’s spokesperson referred to the points made in the letter.

The governor noted the island’s diverse shorebird population and sea turtle nesting, an eroding shoreline that makes development appear impractical and an undue burden on the county and taxpayers to maintain the beach, infrastructure and emergency services.

McMaster also referenced opposition from representatives of the Gullah-Geechee community on St. Helena Island and local fisherman who work the waters off the island’s shore.

“The project’s tremendous impact on wildlife and surrounding communities cannot be squared with principles of fiscal responsibility and our shared mission of protecting the treasures of our state for future generations.,” McMaster wrote.

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