A Christian rock star and his wife are still trying to turn four "treehouses" on Wadmalaw Island into an AirBnb destination, but island residents are fighting back — and some of the back-and-forth on social media is reaching a fever pitch.
Seth and Tori Bolt, who have built four elevated cabins on roughly 35 acres, have been trying to establish their locale as a nature-focused, short-term rental spot since roughly the beginning of the year. Seth Bolt is a bassist in the band Needtobreathe and also owns a house in Summerville, according to property records.
The couple built their first treehouse — supported by pilings, not actual trees — near the Upstate town of Walhalla, where it's become a popular choice for AirBnb renters. The Wadmalaw treehouses are not currently being rented, but they have earned some media notice, including a visit from the women of reality show "Southern Charm."
The Bolts initially said that the four treehouses built on a wooded parcel along Maybank Highway, just north of Charleston Tea Plantation, would serve as a retreat for the band, the couple and their family. Later, the plans changed to rent those out, too, but the county's existing zoning restricts the number of nights and buildings that can be rented.
Opposition on the island has hardened because Wadmalaw residents worry the special zoning the Bolts are asking for could open the door to larger developments there. Some islanders suspect that the Bolts planned to use the treehouses as rentals from the beginning.
"We are pro-preservation and left more than 90 percent of our land untouched and in its rural, natural state," Tori Bolt wrote in an email. "We respect and appreciate the rural nature of Wadmalaw Island, and believe that treehouses and nature retreats are rural by nature and can be fitting with the rural character (of) Wadmalaw."
Since The Post and Courier first reported on the controversy back in May, the tenor of online comments has changed. After Tori Bolt posted a video to a Wadmalaw Facebook group last month, one commenter called her a "master manipulator."
Bolt spoke in the video about how she felt threatened by the discourse, and said some people told her in private messages they might show up on her property. She told The Post and Courier that the tone of the debate was "not productive, helpful or healthy."
"It’s unfortunate, maybe, but I can understand the passion, because of the love people have for Wadmalaw,” said Pam Skinner, an islander who opposes the zoning change.
Under the proposed plan, the Bolts are asking Charleston County Council for the right to rent out seven structures 365 nights a year, though Tori Bolt said there are no plans right now to add three more buildings. They're also asking for the right to host 25 special events on their property per year.
The plan runs counter to the attitudes of many on the island, who are fiercely protective of Wadmalaw's rural nature as development moves like a bulldozer through surrounding locales, like Johns Island. The island's Land Planning Committee, which helped craft Wadmalaw's notoriously strict zoning, has voted unanimously against the Bolts' proposal; the Charleston County Planning Commission also recommended denial.
“It seems pretty clear that it’s inappropriate for our area," said Kevin Richbourg, chair of the Land Planning Committee.
The couple have worked hard to rally some to their cause, inviting some neighbors to a barbecue on their property in March and attending Rockville Presbyterian Church. Around the same time, Tori Bolt made a $1,000 donation to Charleston County Councilman Brantley Moody, but Moody returned the donation in May, according to State Ethics Commission filings.
Moody said he gave the money back when he found out the couple had a zoning issue that would end up before the council.
"They’ve called every council member, and I think I’m probably going to abstain from the voting," Moody said.
The Bolts' proposed zoning will have a public hearing at 6 p.m. Oct. 8. At a later meeting, County Council will decide whether to approve it.