November 5, 2020

Emily Williams

Developers appeal decision that blocked luxury resort plan for SC barrier island

BEAUFORT — The owners of an uninhabited Lowcountry barrier island are challenging a zoning decision that blocked their plans to build a luxury resort there.

Community groups and the property owners have sparred for more than a year over whether plans to develop a 50-unit resort should be allowed on Bay Point near Hilton Head Island.

For tourist lodgings to be built there at all, a special use permit for “ecotourism” was required since the small island is zoned as a natural preserve.

In September, Beaufort County’s zoning board voted unanimously to reject Bay Point Island LLC’s special use request. The owners filed their appeal Thursday.

The issue could end up in state court, but the developers are requesting mediation with county officials as a first step.

Tom Taylor, a Hilton Head attorney who represents Bay Point Island LLC, said Thursday the goal is to reverse the decision. The owners want to “see if there is a middle ground” before they consider other legal options, he added.

The developers are prepared to continue to make their case, Taylor said, and if the zoning board’s decision were to go to Circuit Court and be upheld, they would challenge that, too.  

“We feel very legally supported in our appeal,” Taylor said.

The development plan shows wellness centers, restaurants, a cooking school, an earth lab and solar farms to help power the site. The zoning board rejected it because the application failed to show how the resort would be compatible with the immediate vicinity, minimize harm to the environment and “enhance the ecotourism experience” of users, among other concerns, according to a written order.

Taylor said the developers continue to believe the development plan, which would require an investment of about $100 million, is compatible with all county codes.

Their project has drawn criticism from multiple local groups and environmental organizations that have argued a project of that size should not be allowed on Bay Point, which has no major structures and is only accessible by boat or aircraft. Audubon South Carolina has expressed concerns about building on the island, which is a designated “Important Bird Area.”

South Carolina politicians, including Republican Gov. Henry McMaster and U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, a Democrat who lost in his re-election bid this week, wrote to the board ahead of their vote, asking that the application be denied.

The county board heard from more than a dozen people who spoke against the resort when it reviewed the project in September. Among them was Marquetta Goodwine, or Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, who brought printed copies of more than 30,000 signatures from a petition that was started online to stop the Bay Point development.

In a statement Thursday, the S.C. Environment Law Project said it will continue its “vehement opposition” to the resort and is prepared to protect the island “with whatever legal means necessary.”

The Coastal Conservation League, another early opponent, said it’s not surprised the island’s owners are challenging the zoning decision.

“We didn’t expect them to give up without a fight and have been preparing to continue our opposition against the proposed resort project,” the Charleston-based group said. “We will do our part to ensure the county’s well-informed decision is upheld.”

Beaufort County staff had recommended approval for the Bay Point proposal under certain conditions. They included placing development restrictions on the high ground on Bay Point that isn’t part of the 50-acre resort site.

Developers rejected that idea but proposed an alternative that would limit while still allowing some development on lots where single-family homes can be built.

The resort project and the controversy around it have raised questions about how “ecotourism” is defined and regulated. In this instance, county development director Eric Greenway said in an email last month that the regulations were “not as concise as they could be” and that officials are evaluating how to handle future projects seeking the ecotourism special use.  

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