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Board denies controversial plan to put luxury 'ecotourism' resort on SC barrier island

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A proposal to build a 50-unit resort on Bay Point Island was rejected Thursday by a Beaufort County zoning board. File/Miles Sanders/Provided

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

The luxury development 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 zoning board's rejection. 

"This is a great idea," vice chairman Kevin Mack said just before a vote was taken. "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."

Mack also expressed concerns that critical conversations between the developers and the St. Helena Island community were lacking, describing himself as a "product of St. Helena Island" and of the Gullah-Geechee Nation.

"I’m very sensitive to what the people within the community have to say about what’s coming into their area," he said. 

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 the Bay Point application be denied. 

Those letters were recent — submitted last month by McMaster and last week by Cunningham — but controversy surrounding the project goes back several years when a resort was first proposed for Bay Point.

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, 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 last October has circulated often on social media for nearly a year. Before this week'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 an ecotourism project.

Ecotourism, according to the definition used by Beaufort County, is “organized, educational and mainly outdoor recreation with or without lodging that invites participants to learn about and promote ecological preservation, conservation, and sustainability."

The plans for the resort, which island owners have said would cost about $100 million to build, 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 cost guests around $1,000 a night. Bay Point would have been the company's first U.S. property. 

Since the island is only accessible by boat or aircraft, visitors would be ferried over from Hilton Head. A helipad would be installed for emergency use only, the developers said Thursday, but conceptual plans prepared for the review did not include an exact location for where the aircraft could land. 

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." 

Bay Point's owners could challenge the denial in Circuit Court. Taylor said in an email Friday he was not aware of any decision about whether they will appeal. 

The meeting was held 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 on the island and that structures would be built off-site to minimize impact. 

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Meeting attendees who spoke, including representatives from groups that have made public statements in opposition to the Bay Point resort plans, like the South Carolina Environmental Law Project and the Beaufort County Open Land Trust, made their cases against the plans. Some pointed to the island's status as a National Audubon Society-designated "Important Bird Area." Others spoke about the threat of hurricanes, sea-level rise and erosion. 

Marquetta Goodwine, who goes by Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, brought a printed copy of the 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 distrust of the way the development had been presented 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 under certain conditions, which involved placing development restrictions on the high ground that isn't part of the 50-acre resort site. 

"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, told the zoning board. 

The island's ownership opposed some of the conditions and offered a compromise.

Zoning board member Mark McGinnis cited several reasons for denying the permit. He said the proposal was "inconsistent" with the county's comprehensive plan, "incompatible" with the surrounding area 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 group of county staffers who determined the project qualified as ecotourism, told board members he felt their definition as written is "relatively weak." 

He went on to explain how the county's rules require that ecotourism operators adhere to the "stewardship, research, and education principles promoted" by a group called the International Ecotourism Society, or TIES. 

In December, Greenway's staff had told Bay Point developers that their plan did not meet the definition of ecotourism which could have stalled the proposal.

Shortly after, Greenway explained Thursday, Jon Bruno, the executive director at TIES, reached out to him, and they set up a call with county staff members to talk about Bay Point. Bruno later contacted Greenway to notify him that the owners at Bay Point had asked him to help them write a new proposal to resubmit to the county.

Bruno told The Post and Courier that he accepted and was offered his expenses and a daily rate to "fix up the communications materials." The TIES director was also part of a county review meeting in early May, just before staff decided that the revised Bay Point plans Bruno helped to write could be called ecotourism and would move to the zoning board.

Bruno's involvement and the credibility of TIES, which in 2015 lost its tax exempt status and saw its leadership board resign, have been questioned by groups and individuals who have been against the project, including state Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, who delivered a lengthy list of concerns about TIES during Thursday's hearing. 

Laura Cantral, executive director of the Coastal Conservation League, one of the groups that's most actively opposed allowing a resort on Bay Point, said that the denial was the "direct result" of "community wide collaboration."  

“With this decision behind us, we are engaged in conversations with our partners to explore opportunities for permanent protection" of the barrier island, Cantral said in a statement.

Reach Emily Williams at 843-607-0894. Follow her on Twitter @emilye_williams.

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