Plans to build a luxury resort on a small, undeveloped barrier island off South Carolina's coast could be allowable under rules for "ecotourism."
But some conservationists and Lowcountry residents oppose the potential $100 million project, citing concerns about shifting sands, local wildlife and fishermen who have come to the island's waters for generations.
The plans are for Bay Point Island, an island northeast of Hilton Head in Beaufort County. It's only accessible by boat or aircraft and is undeveloped except for a small cottage, a pier and a dock.
The waters around Bay Point have long been a fishing ground for Gullah-Geechee people — many of whom lived on nearby St. Helena Island — and the island itself has been recognized as important habitat for shorebirds and nesting sea turtles.
A resort plan was first proposed — and also opposed by locals and environmental groups — several years ago, along with a request for the island to be annexed by Hilton Head.
But the island's principal owner, European investor Philippe Cahen, opted to hold back on those plans for several years, in part to figure out a practical and sustainable way to bring electrical power to a resort there, said Tim Pitcher, another one of the island's owners.
The recent request is coming to Beaufort County under a zoning category that allows remote areas to build tourist accommodations, if they meet the qualifications to be considered "ecotourism."
Those qualifications include limits on the size of accommodations and an open space requirement of at least 85 percent of the site. Operators also are expected to adhere to the principles set by the nonprofit the International Ecotourism Society.
The society defines ecotourism as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education."
A remote resort
Plans for the resort, which haven't been formally submitted to the county, are expected to call for 50 guest units, most of which would be one-story villas elevated on pilings. The resort would also include dining, a spa and other support facilities.
The development won't include any paved roads: Guests would get around by foot, bicycle or on small electric vehicles like golf carts. There are plans to build a solar field on the island to power the resort, Pitcher said.
All of the guests would arrive by boat, likely from designated pickup spots on Hilton Head and St. Helena islands. A helipad would be built for emergencies, including any medical issues that can't be addressed by on-site medical staff.
In lieu of sewer lines or individual septic systems, Pitcher said they plan to build a package plant, a small facility to treat wastewater.
The developers estimate about 100 guests may stay at the resort at a time, and it would be staffed by 60 to 80 people.
The island's owners plan to develop the resort with Six Senses, a luxury operator based in Thailand. The majority of the company's 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. resort.
Earlier this year, hospitality giant InterContinental Hotels Group bought the company for $300 million. In a news release about the sale, IHG CEO Keith Barr described Six Senses as "the top-tier of luxury."
Many of the rooms at the five-star-rated Six Senses hotels are priced at more than $1,000 a night. Stays in its newest lodging in Bhutan go for $1,400 or more.
Plans for Bay Point stand in contrast to St. Phillips Island, another barrier island that, before 1910, was connected to Bay Point.
St. Phillips, which is under a conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy, was purchased by the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism in late 2017, and it since has been incorporated into Hunting Island State Park.
That $4.9 million purchase was seen as a conservation win for the area.
Small, ranger-lead tours started there last year. The sale included a residence and a caretaker's house, and the conservation easement limits new development to no more than 10 additional structures.
Jessie White, a staff attorney with the S.C. Environmental Law Project, said she sees parallels between Bay Point and Captain Sam's Spit, a 150-acre sand strip along Captain Sam's Inlet between Kiawah and Seabrook islands.
Conservation groups have opposed plans to develop the teardrop-shaped spit of sand, citing concerns about the continual reshaping of the beach by waves and wind.
"Like the Spit, Bay Point is a really ecologically rich public resource," White said. "From the water line seaward, that’s public property, and the public has a vested and important interest in coastal waters and marshes."
The waters surrounding Bay Point Island would still be open for public fishing if a resort is built there. Though the island is privately owned, its surrounding waters are public, and Pitcher said the resort operators would be interested in sourcing local fish to feed guests.
But Marquetta Goodwine, who goes by Queen Quet as the chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, said local fishers are not interested in doing business with the planned resort, which they see as a threat to an extremely ecologically sensitive area.
The proposed development would have "irreversible negative impacts" on the quality of life for Gullah-Geechee people who have lived there, she said. So far, more than 1,800 have signed an online petition started by the Gullah-Geechee Sea Island Coalition in opposition to the development.
"The citizens of the Gullah-Geechee Nation live in balance with the environment and have done so in this area since the 1500s," the petition reads.
Developing a vulnerable area like Bay Point runs counter to their culture, Goodwine explained to the island owners at a public meeting held about the resort plans earlier this month.
"They disagree with you presenting it as if this is sustainable, because what is sustainable is what is already there," she said.
Rikki Parker, the South Coast office director for the Coastal Conservation League, estimated that about 100 people attended the meeting, which was organized by a Beaufort County Council member outside the county's review process.
The resort plans, if they're formally submitted, will have to be approved as ecotourism by the Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeals.
Since ecotourism is allowed under the island's current zoning, the plans wouldn't come before County Council; the zoning board would have the final say.
Even if the plans align with all of the ecotourism requirements, Parker said she thinks the development is at odds with the purpose of the ecotourism designation because it would be built on a barrier island that's prone to erosion.
"Those islands are sacrificial in nature," Parker said. "They protect us from hurricanes. That’s their purpose. It's not a stable piece of land to develop."
The 'fundamental disagreement'
Bay Point Island has been designated as an Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society, holding a maximum of some 8,000 shorebirds a day during the winter months. It's particularly important, the environmental organization notes, because the lack of human disturbance there makes it a welcoming place for migrating shorebirds to rest.
It's also a nesting habitat for sea turtles. During the 2019 nesting season, there were 107 sea turtle nests on Bay Point Island, according to data from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
The Coastal Conservation League has cited those facts among its concerns, but the island's owners maintain their plans will not be disruptive to wildlife. Pitcher noted that resort plans would include educational programs about the island's shorebirds.
"We believe that the best way to protect nature is by educating people on the beauty and value of nature," Pitcher said.
Owners at Bay Point have also said that the island's beaches are accreting rather than eroding.
"That may be true temporarily," White said, "but, on the long term, a barrier island itself is a piece of shifting sand that moves and migrates."
The villas would be built behind the tree line, Pitcher said. Other activities, such as educational programs, would take guests into other parts of Bay Point, including the beach.
"We’re aware that at all coastal islands the sand shifts not only yearly but daily and even by the minute," Pitcher said. "That's the reality of every coastal island there is."
Parker said she's supportive of the sustainability initiatives that Six Senses has started at its existing resorts. The company was an early adopter of bans on plastic straws and disposable food containers, and earlier this year, it announced a pledge to be plastic-free by 2022.
The primary issue, Parker said, is the location. Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands, which already have resort development, would be more appropriate and could "benefit from the environmental ethos" that Six Senses touts.
"That’s the fundamental disagreement that we have," White said. "There’s no development that makes sense on a shifting piece of land at the mouth of the Port Royal Sound."