South Carolina Environmental Law Project

Lawyers for the Wild Side of South Carolina

Beaufort County zoning board rejects Bay Point Island resort plans
September 25th, 2020

By Stephan Fastenau, The Island Packet

A Beaufort County zoning board rejected plans to build a resort on Bay Point Island, saying the project wasn’t compatible with the nearby area and didn’t meet development requirements for a special permit.

The vote Thursday night at Burton Wells Recreation Center was among the county’s first in-person meetings since the COVOD-19 pandemic closed government offices and moved public meetings online. The Bay Point decision was pushed back multiple times as county community development director Eric Greenway vowed to allow the public to comment in person.

And speakers at the meeting overwhelmingly asked the board to reject the permit, citing environmental concerns, the threat of climate change and inconsistency with the intent of ecotourism.

After a closed-door meeting in executive session to receive legal advice following public comments and presentations from developers and county staff, the board unanimously voted against granting a permit to allow the project as a special ecotourism use.

Board vice chairman Kevin Mack said he was concerned to hear developers had not met with community leaders on nearby St. Helena Island after proposing that a cultural connection would be part of the resort experience.

“I’m a product of St. Helena Island; I’m a product of Gullah Geechee nation,” said board member Kevin Mack. “I am very sensitive about what the people in the community have to say about what’s coming in to their area...”

Board members said they didn’t find the resort plans compatible with nearby islands and questioned plans for waste, electricity, public safety and environmental protections.

Bay Point Island spans more than 1,000 acres including marsh and waterways, and of that, about 300 acres are high ground.

Bay Point representatives said their plans would only build on a fraction of the resort’s 50-acre footprint. They noted that the island was subdivided into 50 lots more than 20 years ago and that waterfront mansions could be built along the beach.

“Really the time to save Bay Point Island was back in 1998,” said landscape architect Josh Tiller, presenting for the developers.

Beaufort County planning staff had recommended the board approve the special use permit for the resort only under certain conditions, including placing a conservation easement on the remaining property to protect it from development. The development group countered to the board with an offer to conserve 15 buildable lots but leave 25 lots for possible future single-family homes.

Representatives from Coastal Conservation League, S.C. Environmental Law Project, Beaufort County Open Land Trust and Port Royal Sound Maritime Foundation were among those to urge the board to reject to permit.

St. Helena resident Maruqetta Goodwine, who has the title of Queen Quet of the Gullah Geechee Nation, noted the more than 30,000 signatures she had received on an online petition “in opposition to this proposal to build anything on what we consider sacred ground,” she told the board.

Multiple speakers questioned the legitimacy of a third-party organization, the International Ecotourism Society, that is referenced in county building code establishing the definition of ecotourism, and its director Jon Bruno.

County planning officials at one point when evaluating the Bay Point plans consulted consulted Bruno as to how the Bay plans fit the ecotourism definition.

State Rep. Shannon Erickson and state Sen. Chip Campsen wrote to the board referencing allegations in documents from the state Attorney General’s office that the organization had its tax-exempt status revoked in 2015 for failing to file required information with the IRS for multiple years, that Bruno lacks credentials as an ecotourism expert, that the organization’s advisory board resigned in 2015 over concerns of transparancy and financial discrepancies.

The county’s most recent staff report didn’t reference the organization, instead saying the plans could be approved if all the other land was protected.

Bay Point representatives planned to lease the island to operator Six Senses, which has remote resorts throughout the world. Guests to the Bay Point resort would depart via a ferry from Hilton Head Plantation, representatives said Thursday.

Fifty cottages would be built off site and set on pilings on the island. The buildings would be on high enough ground to be protected from the island’s erosional shorelines, the Bay Point group said.

Paramedics would be employed on site and a helicopter available for emergencies, developers said.

But county officials still voiced concern about emergency response and possible strain on government services.

They also questioned how the resort could be built without disturbing the natural environment of an island that’s an important bird and turtle habitat.

Multiple speakers noted a recent report that Beaufort County is among the most susceptible areas in the country to climate change risks.

“Bay Point is absolutely the wrong place for this development to be located,” Port Royal Sound Foundation director Jody Hayward said.

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