Plans to build a resort on a remote island off South Carolina's coast took a step forward this week, now with word from Beaufort County staff that the plans can qualify as "ecotourism."
Developers are hoping to build an about $100 million high-end getaway on Bay Point Island, which is just northeast of Hilton Head.
It's accessible only by boat or aircraft and is currently undeveloped. The project's backers say it's the ideal location for an "ecologically based travel destination."
But some local groups say the concerns they raised about the development have not been addressed, and they're worried the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will make it more difficult for opposing voices to be heard.
The Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League has argued the site is inappropriate for any kind of resort, even one that emphasizes sustainability. That's primarily because of its status as a small barrier island, vulnerable to sea level rise and hurricanes.
The local Gullah-Geechee community has also protested the plans. Its leaders say the waters around Bay Point have served as an important fishing ground for generations and will be threatened by the development.
This is the second time a resort has been proposed for Bay Point. Its principal owner, European investor Philippe Cahen, proposed a plan several years ago. This time, the Thailand-based luxury hotel operator Six Senses is involved.
The majority of Six Senses' resorts are in Asia or on islands in the Pacific, with some locations in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Bay Point would be the company’s first U.S. property.
Since the island is zoned as a natural preserve, county codes only allow for accommodations to be built on it if they meet the definition of "ecotourism."
According to Beaufort County staff, the resort plans — as they stand now — can qualify, but several months ago, they didn't pass muster. Beaufort County community development director Eric Greenway wrote in a December letter that "after careful review," he concluded the resort wasn't ecotourism.
But since then, developers submitted revised plans that came with a new stamp of approval: a letter from Jon Bruno, the executive director of the International Ecotourism Society, the source of the ecotourism definition used in the county's code.
"Having now had time to thoroughly study the plans, in consultation with several experts, and having visited Bay Point Island in the company of several sustainable development experts, further, having met extensively with and questioned the directors of this project, we can state definitively that the Bay Point Island development plan meets the definition of ecotourism as defined by TIES," Bruno wrote in the letter.
Greenway sent the developers a letter in mid-March, saying that the resubmitted plan meets the county's standards for an ecotourism use.
In the letter, Greenway specified that the determination "in no way should be construed as an approval of the use to be established on the island."
The developers still need the approval of a county zoning board, which will review the plans now that staffers have given the project conceptual approval. It's unclear when that meeting will happen, Greenway said, because of the ongoing coronavirus health crisis.
In the meantime, he said, the developers are holding a series of virtual meetings with various interested parties on Thursday, including cultural and tourism groups, business organizations and environmental interests.
Marquetta Goodwine, who goes by Queen Quet as the chieftess of the Gullah-Geechee Nation, said she was invited to participate in the virtual session as a "cultural group," but said she was "deeply concerned" to see these meetings were moving forward at this time.
Prior to the pandemic, she said, the county had reached out about conducting an in-person meeting with the developers. When it was clear that session couldn't safely happen, Queen Quet said she thought the process would be put on pause.
"Many of our native Gullah-Geechees do not have online access at their homes," she said. "Therefore, having online meetings concerning a project that we have adamantly spoken out against is not fair, equitable nor just."
The Gullah-Geechee community is "not being prioritized," she said, adding that an online petition started by the Gullah-Geechee Sea Island Coalition late last year has continued to garner signatures. As of Wednesday afternoon, almost 6,000 people had signed.
The Coastal Conservation League shared similar concerns about the timing. Juliana Smith, its south coast project manager, said the group has been requesting in-person meetings since last summer.
"Pushing forward under the cover of a worldwide pandemic shows a clear lack of transparency and ignores the concerns of many community members that will be impacted by this project, particularly those who do not have access to the technology necessary to participate in these meetings," Smith said.
Art Tiller, vice president at Luckett & Farley, a Louisville, Ky.-based firm working on the Bay Point project, said in a statement that they "welcome collaboration from all environmentalists," noting that Greenway and the Coastal Conservation League were invited to tour the island property this week.
"Since late 2019, we have reached out to dozens of community groups and organizations in coastal South Carolina to share our sustainable vision, community benefits and ask for feedback," Krebs said. "I am grateful for the opportunity to provide clarity to everyone."
Tim Pitcher, a co-owner of Bay Point Island, also said in a statement that the developers have had "informative and positive conversations" with county staff and local organizations in recent weeks.
"We look forward to working together with other environmentalists, friends and neighbors in the future as we seek regenerative efforts on both the island and the community," Pitcher said.
In regard to the overall timing of the review, the Bay Point team said they were "responding to scheduling from the county."
Greenway said that, since the Bay Point Island representatives are not local, he's been working around their travel schedules.
"No one on our end is trying to do anything not to get the information out to the interested parties," Greenway said.
If the county feels that more meetings need to take place that "provide a wider array of information to a wider audience" they will "delay any action until that takes place," Greenway said.
Smith of the Coastal Conservation League said she hopes the community will have a chance to safely address the development group in person before the plans come before the zoning board.
But ultimately, she said, the organization hopes they won't see a resort built on Bay Point at all.
"Given the unique ecosystem and important habitat on Bay Point Island, true ecotourism would be significantly less impactful than the current proposal," the organization wrote in a letter to developers on April 22.
Bay Point Island has been designated as an "Important Bird Area" by the National Audubon Society, and it's a nesting habitat for sea turtles. The most recent plan includes a "conservation strategy" for shorebirds. During a review meeting Wednesday, county staff said they needed the Bay Point team to provide more information that's sourced from Audubon South Carolina.
Resort plans call for about 50 villas for guests as well as dining and spa venues. The resort would utilize solar fields for power and likely a package plant for sewage.
Structures will be constructed off-site "to minimize site impacts," according to the plans. No paved roads are included, and only bikes and small electric vehicles will be allowed.
Though it's unclear what the price point would be for lodgings on Bay Point, many of the five-star-rated rooms managed by Six Senses are priced at more than $1,000 a night.