In the beginning, there was Hilton Head, and other barrier-island resorts followed. Now, a global ecotourism group wants to put up 50 villas and a handful of luxury-support buildings on Bay Point Island — a little slice of wild South Carolina just across Port Royal Sound from the Hilton Head Island Airport.
It’s an attractive $100 million gamble — for the owners and developers, not for the people of Beaufort County. That’s why members of the Beaufort County Board of Zoning Appeals, acting on behalf of the countywide population, must reject plans for the resort, not just on technicalities but on the very concept. The board will vote Thursday.
Bangkok-based Six Senses wants to turn the barely buildable 50 acres of beachfront land into an exclusive and luxurious hideaway — a $1,000 per-person-per-day kind of resort.
We can’t imagine county planners had anything like that in mind when they sketched out zoning for ecotourism. The shape-shifting island is perhaps suited for a summer-camp-style setup, but not helicopter pads and saunas.
Bay Point is one of the county’s last undeveloped barrier islands for a good reason (previous resort plans have been rejected). Everything truly buildable has been snatched up over the past 50 years, and getting electricity, water and sewage service on the island is no small feat.
The Gullah people next door on St. Helena Island don’t want it. Tens of thousands of people around the county have signed petitions to voice their opposition. Gov. Henry McMaster, who obviously sees the decision as bigger than just a local one, has called the resort plans “plainly inconsistent” with the county’s definition of ecotourism. U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham has urged preserving the island for seabirds, turtles and other wildlife that take refuge there so that real ecotourism is possible.
Local and statewide conservationists oppose the plans — and the idea. The Audubon Society says Six Senses’ bird and wildlife plan is inadequate. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone other than the owners and developers who think transforming the island into a resort is a good idea.
So the zoning board shouldn’t feel any pressure other than to vote with its constituency. Plus, the county’s definition of ecotourism seems plain enough. It’s supposed to promote “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education.”
By rejecting the resort, the county wouldn’t be taking any development rights from the property owners. The owners could still build private homes and supply their own utilities. The county board would simply be refusing to approve the resort and call it “ecotourism,” thereby removing itself and taxpayers from any of the responsibility — or liability — that comes with such a risky undertaking.
Bay Point Island should be left alone. The owners should be looking to sell the island to the state or trying to work out a conservation easement deal with nonprofit groups.