South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Another call to reject luxury ‘ecoresort’ plan for SC barrier island comes as review nears
September 14th, 2020

By Emily Williams, Post & Courier

Another South Carolina politician is calling for a high-end “ecoresort” project for an undeveloped Lowcountry barrier island to be turned down, days before the plan is scheduled to be up for a vote.

The proposal, which calls for 50 villas along with spas, dining venues and other amenities on Bay Point Island in Beaufort County have attracted opposition for months, and a key decision on the project may be close: A county zoning board is supposed to review it next week.

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-SC, wrote to the zoning board Monday, urging members to reject the development’s request to be considered “ecotourism.” He described Bay Point in his letter as “an increasingly rare and invaluable natural resource” that serves as a refuge for wildlife and a buffer from intense storms.

A “large-scale resort” would “compromise each of the valuable benefits the island naturally provides,” wrote Cunningham, whose district includes Bay Point Island. The Democratic congressman is running against Republican challenger state Rep. Nancy Mace for the 1st Congressional District seat.

Last month, Gov. Henry McMaster sent a letter to the zoning board calling on it to reject the resort as an ecotourism use. Cunningham’s letter raised some of the same points that the Republican governor had addressed.

Both politicians shared concerns about the development’s effects on native shore birds and sea turtles, strain that infrastructure needs could put on Beaufort County resources and the risks of placing new buildings on an erosion-prone barrier island. They also questioned whether the plans were true “ecotourism.”

The ecotourism definition used by Beaufort County describes it as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

Ecotourism should, “at a minimum,” Cunningham wrote, “amplify the history and culture of our community and protect and preserve our natural resources.”

“As proposed, the current project does not seem to meet that standard,” the letter states.

Since Bay Point is zoned as a natural preserve, the project has to be ecotourism in order for any accommodations use to be located there.

Tom Taylor, a Hilton Head Island-based attorney who represents the owners of the island, said Monday they still believe their plans “meet or exceed” all terms to be considered ecotourism in Beaufort County.

In a response to the governor last week, Taylor wrote that there are people who “object to any development of the privately owned island” and argued this was a development solution that is environmentally conscious.

“There will be no paved roads, no parking lots and no golf courses,” Taylor said.

He pointed to the size of the proposed development — it would sit on a 50-acre parcel on the 400-acre island — and how they plan to construct it. The buildings would be made off-site and then barged to the island to minimize impact.

One of the concerns raised in Cunningham’s letter was the possibility that use of a helicopter at Bay Point could interfere with military operations at nearby Parris Island or the Marine Corps Air Station. Developers have said a helipad would be installed for emergency situations at the resort.

Neither entity has weighed in on the project, and Taylor said the county hasn’t flagged it as a potential issue.

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