Governor wants Zoning Board to deny Beaufort County ecotourism proposal

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BEAUFORT COUNTY, SC (WSAV) – South Carolina’s Governor is making his voice heard on a controversial island project in Beaufort County.

Governor Henry McMaster wrote a letter to the Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeals asking them to deny approval for an Ecotourism resort on Bay Point Island.

McMaster wrote the development could have a “detrimental impact” on both South Carolina’s natural resources and taxpayers.

Henry McMaster signed off on letter against the Bay Point development proposal

The Governor said the plans, which have to be balanced with the ecotourism principles, are “plainly inconsistent” with the requirements.

The Island is off the coast of Hilton Head, and is only accessible by boat or plane.

The Island’s owners are seeking to build several dozen villas, wellness centers, restaurants, and an “earth lab”.

“Even a smaller version of this project would not be acceptable, in my opinion,” McMaster wrote in his letter. “I don’t think such developments are what our people had in mind when they envisioned ‘ecotourism.'”

Environmentalists are cheering the Governor’s decision to speak out. They say many parts of the plans have not been appropriately analyzed by the developers and provided for.

“His message it’s consistent what we and many conservation groups have been saying all along,” explains Juliana Smith, South Coast Project Manager, of the Coastal Conservation League.

“It all comes down to the fact this resort would irreparably harm not just South Carolina’s habitats and wildlife but also our cultural resources. We have the Gullah-Geechee communities neighboring Bay Point island that are going to be directly impacted by that resort.”

“Any increase in human traffic, noise, lights, even just people walking on the beach is going to have a negative impact that is just inevitable, and it is hard to avoid, especially when you are developing something so large.”

“The footprint of the resort is massive,” says Smith. “It is just 50 acres but the island is shifting and changing so it is constantly going to be in flux. Any infrastructure that is set out there is going to be immediately threatened by environmental factors like the increased and more dangerous storms we have been having. and sea-level rise in general which will affect the infrastructure.”

“We believe this will be the poster child for ecotourism in the United States, we are proud of the partner we have,” explained Tom Taylor, a member of the development group.

Developers say the Governor’s is listening to their critics, and not looking at the whole proposal.

“We believe the proposal that is currently pending before the zoning board of appeals is detailed, thorough, and addresses almost every point the Governor made in his letter,” said Taylor. “If you look at it and look at the environmental questions and look at the answers we have given this is going to be a great project for Beaufort County and for Bay Point Island.”

Environmentalists argue that the project won’t just hurt sea turtle nest and bird habitats, but be costly to the taxpayers as well.

“What’s being proposed out there are over 80,000 square feet of infrastructure,” continued Smith. “Simply getting the infrastructure out there and installing it will have massive impacts on the habitat that is out there. We are talking about a sandy island. It’s especially vulnerable to infrastructure and development.”

“Any development out there has a very expensive need. Any damages to those infrastructures could fall to taxpayers to pay for. Also during construction, you will need emergency services both during the construction phase and the life of the resort. Any emergency services will be very expensive if something happens on the island. And there is, as the Governor mentioned, there’s the potential for beach management costs which would fall on county taxpayers. Even if you have never been to Bay Point Island this project could directly affect how your money is spent.”

Developers say their plans call for limited impact and cost, during construction and after. And it will be good for the economy, bringing the County tax revenue.

“We are literally going to construct all of the units in a modular capacity off the island, bring them on the island, and put them on pilings. There are going to be a total of fewer than 3 acres of rooftops on this 50-acre plat of land on a 400-acre island,” explains Taylor.

Developers outlined their plan for environmental protection and education in their proposal

“It is not going to cost the taxpayers of Beaufort County anything,” continued Taylor. “There are going to be no roads, there are going to be no schools, there are going to be no parks. All its going to do is generate money from people who are going to come in and are going to take advantage of the beautiful ecotourism project that we are going to have.”

“It is privately owned. There are by right permits for 49 houses to be built there. This is a golden opportunity for Beaufort County and the state of South Carolina to bring in an ecotourism resort to the area which will have a positive impact on the area.”

Members of the native Gullah/Geechee community have also called for the Board to reject the plan. They use the area for fishing and it has historical significance for the community.

They even started an online petition https://www.change.org/p/beaufort-county-council-stop-bay-point-destructionment-at-st-helena-island-in-the-gullah-geechee-nation which has more than 24,000 signatures of support.

Petition against the development proposal

McMaster wrote in his letter that “This is a living history we do not want to lose,” Agreeing with the concerns of chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation Queen Quet about the potential damage the development would cause to their community.

The development group says it hopes to address the group’s concerns.

“if you look at the national Gullah/Geechee corridor project, their management plan calls specifically for projects like ecotourism resorts that would help bring people into the community and help them experience it,” said Taylor. “We believe there could be daily Gullah Geechee people to come to Bay Point to give presentations to help with the education that we will be offering. We will be bringing our guests to St. Helena Island to see and help understand the Gullah/Geechee community.”

Multiple Lowcountry organizations, from the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, Hilton Head Island Land Trust, Port Royal Sound Foundation, and Audubon South Carolina have all issued public statements against the Bay Point plans.

The Coast Conservation League and others believe the project can pose an “environmental catastrophe” almost immediately because of shifting sands and hurricane risk.

A letter from Senator Chip Campsen and Beaufort Representative Shannon Erickson was also sent out after the Governor’s letter was released saying they both had questions and asked for “further analysis” before any vote is taken on the project.

Taylor says he believes the Governor’s intentions were good, but he doesn’t have all the information.

“In this particular situation someone helped draft a letter than was simply inaccurate,” said Taylor. “and hopefully people will give it a better look than saying well the Governor is against it we should all be against it.”

“Please go and look at the actual paperwork and look at the proposal that has been made, ‘ continued Taylor. “Don’t just look at the internet or what you are hearing from an email blast someone gets that says you should see this form letter and write.”

The Beaufort Zoning Board of Appeals has been supposed to hear arguments and decide on the project since April. But COVID-19 has delayed or canceled all those meetings.

The next opportunity the Board may meet is late September.

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