South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Commentary: Gov. McMaster was right to oppose Bay Point development
August 21st, 2020

By Amy Armstrong, Post & Courier

Gov. Henry McMaster’s opposition to the development of an “eco-resort” on Bay Point Island shows true leadership on an issue of statewide importance. South Carolinians should thank him for urging the protection of this culturally and environmentally significant resource.

Similarly, we should applaud Sen. Chip Campsen and Rep. Shannon Erikson for their own letter to Beaufort County’s Zoning Board of Appeals and for identifying a constitutionally suspect provision that may allow a private third-party to decide if a 50-unit development on a shifting barrier island meets the county’s definition of ecotourism.

This kind of leadership from our elected officials is in lockstep with the concerns of the conservation community and the thousands of  local citizens opposed to the development of Bay Point Island.

Those favoring its development disregard the island’s value as an undisturbed resting place for rare, threatened and endangered migratory birds and other wildlife; as a buffer against storms; and as a historic fishing area for the Gullah people. The only people who could say that developing here is good for the island itself are those who stand to benefit financially.

The island’s boundaries are in flux, with trees and vegetation eroding into the marsh and beach in some areas, while sand is building up in others. On the southeast end, erosion has left a lone house sitting among downed trees, completely underwashed at high tide. As with all our barrier islands, Bay Point is a constantly shifting sand mass. It would only be a matter of time before a new development faced the same fate.

The island also includes an important bird area, where shorebirds are able to rest and feed safely only because human activity is practically nonexistent. Uninhabited barrier islands like Bay Point are few and far between, and even more critical for our vulnerable shorebirds.

The proposed resort would include 50 villas, shops, restaurants, bars, spas and fitness centers — along with the 10 septic systems — on a narrow, shifting piece of sand.

What’s more, the residential lots that have been platted for Bay Point are wholly or partially underwater. Some are even seaward of the state’s setback lines, meaning they could not be developed in any case.

The reliance on The International Ecotourism Society as giving credibility to this project does more to undermine it. Former society board members were so concerned about financial mismanagement and unethical practices that they resigned. It failed to file its required tax forms, and its 501(c)(3) tax status was revoked by the IRS.

Also, its director, Jon Bruno, is financially benefiting from promoting development of Bay Point Island: He was paid to provide an “ecotourism” stamp of approval.

All the ecotourism goals that the developer extols can be accomplished without structures and associated infrastructure. Legitimate ecotourism businesses provide tours to adjacent St. Phillips Island that include wildlife viewing opportunities and interpretative educational programs.

In addition, the Gullah people for generations have harvested fish and shellfish from the marshes and beaches of Bay Point, to provide cultural experiences.

Finally, because Bay Point is a coastal barrier island, it is covered under the Coastal Barrier Resource Act, which was established in 1982 to encourage conservation of hurricane-prone, biologically rich barrier islands and prevent federal subsidies for their development. So Bay Point is ineligible for FEMA flood insurance.

While the project may not require county services, taxpayers would be on the hook when a hurricane hits Bay Point and strews its debris throughout Port Royal Sound’s pristine waters.

I hope others will join me and our elected officials in being a voice for this natural treasure. The right thing to do is to ensure this island’s permanent protection by allowing it to shift, change and continue to provide valuable wildlife habitat as it has done successfully for generations.

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