South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Board denies controversial plan to put luxury ‘ecotourism’ resort on SC barrier island
September 24th, 2020

By Emily Williams, The Post & Courier

After hearing resounding calls from citizens to reject a proposed resort on an uninhabited Lowcountry barrier island, a Beaufort County zoning board voted unanimously Thursday evening to deny the request.

The luxury resort plan was proposed as an ecotourism use on Bay Point Island, which is considered an important habitat for shorebirds and sea turtles. Location was a major consideration in the board’s rejection.

“This is a great idea,” Zoning Board of Appeals vice chair Kevin Mack said just before a vote was taken Thursday. “But I just don’t think it’s compatible to the surrounding area. I think it’s going to be more harm to the environment.”

South Carolina politicians including Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., wrote to the board ahead of their vote, asking that they deny the Bay Point application.

Those letters were recent — submitted last month by McMaster and last week by Cunningham — but the controversy surrounding the project goes back several years when a resort plan was first proposed for Bay Point, along with a request for the island to be annexed by Hilton Head.

The island’s principal owner, European investor Philippe Cahen, decided to hold back on that plan. A different proposal, which is centered on an ecotourism use for the barrier island, started to pick up steam, and draw criticism from the local community, last fall.

An online petition started by the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition ahead of a public meeting held about the resort plans last October has circulated often on social media for nearly a year. Before Thursday’s meeting, it had grown to more than 30,600 signatures.

Since Bay Point is zoned as a natural preserve, tourist accommodations can only be built there if they are part of a project that’s considered ecotourism.

Ecotourism, according to the definition used by Beaufort County, is “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”

Resort plans, which island owners have said would cost about $100 million to execute, include 50 villas as well as wellness centers, restaurants, a cooking school, an earth lab and a solar farm to help power the facility.

IHG-owned Six Senses was the intended operator for the resort. The Thailand-based firm runs high-end getaways that can go for around $1,000 a night. The Bay Point project would have been Six Senses’ first resort in the U.S.

Tom Taylor, a Hilton Head Island-based attorney who represents the owners of Bay Point, introduced the project at Thursday’s hearing as a “completely self-contained ecotourism wellness retreat.”

The meeting was hosted in a gym in Beaufort’s Burton Wells Recreation Center where attendees wearing face masks sat in folding chairs spaced widely apart. More than a dozen speakers delivered at times impassioned comments against allowing the resort plans.

Aside from the applicants, just one speaker, who said he has been employed by Bay Point Island LLC for the last five months, spoke in favor.

Taylor and other representatives for the development team emphasized aspects of the plan that they said pointed to its low impact on the environment, like the fact that no paved roads or parking lots would be added.

But the meeting attendees who spoke, including representatives from local groups that have made public statements opposing allowing a resort at Bay Point, like the South Carolina Environmental Law Project and the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, made cases against the resort plans.

Marquetta Goodwine, who goes by Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, brought a printed copy of the tens of thousands of names signed to the online petition, which explains how the waters around Bay Point have been used as a fishing ground for Gullah-Geechee people for generations.

She and others have argued since late last year that putting a 50-unit resort on Bay Point would jeopardize their use of the surrounding waters.

Many of the speakers expressed general distrust of the way the development had been presented to the zoning board and to the community as an environmentally conscious venture.

“Just how stupid do you think we are here in Beaufort County?” said one woman, who was wearing a sea turtle t-shirt.

Beaufort County staff had recommended approval for the Bay Point proposal, but only under certain conditions, which involved putting the remaining acres of high ground on the island that aren’t part of the 50-acre proposed resort parcel into a conservation easement that wouldn’t allow further development, namely single-family homes that could be built on the 40 remaining lots on Bay Point.

“Yes, they have met the minimum requirements for ecotourism but there is a lot of land out there left that can have something built on it,” Eric Greenway, county community development director, cautioned the zoning board.

The island’s ownership opposed that part of the conditions and instead offered to put 15 of the subdivided lots on the island into a conservation easement, leaving 25 lots on Bay Point for development.

Taylor, who characterized the terms set by Greenway an an “overreach,” told the board that they would prefer to accept those requirements over what turned out to be the end result: a full denial of the application.

In his motion to deny the application, zoning board member Mark McGinnis cited several reasons, including that the proposal was “inconsistent” with the county’s comprehensive plan, “incompatible” with surrounding land and not designed to minimize impacts on natural wildlife or local emergency services.

Concerns were also raised during the hearing about how the county defines ecotourism.

Greenway, who leads the team of county staff that determined the project qualified as ecotourism and could be allowed to advance to the zoning board, told board members he felt their definition as written is “relatively weak.”

Bay Point’s owners could appeal the zoning board’s decision to the Circuit Court within 30 days of when written notice of the decision is received. Taylor said in an email Friday that, to his knowledge, a decision about an appeal has not been made.

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