Developer who wanted a resort on untouched Beaufort County barrier island drops appeal

Dead trees, sand dunes and sea oats line the Atlantic Ocean shore of Bay Point Island. (File photo)

A developer who was vying to build a luxury resort on a Beaufort County barrier island dropped its appeal against a July circuit court decision that upheld the denial of a special permit to build on Bay Point Island.

The 1,200-acre undeveloped island sits at the mouth of the Port Royal Sound and has been described by environmentalists as a “coastal treasure.” It serves as a haven for wildlife and is vital to the Gullah/Geechee Nation and the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association, who’ve fished the waters for centuries.

“With very few remaining natural barrier islands left in South Carolina, and particularly those as culturally and ecologically rich as Bay Point, their protection is needed now more than ever,” said Amy Armstrong, South Carolina Environmental Law Project executive director, in a Thursday news release.

Environmentalists say this is a major victory, and this likely quells the fears of a luxury resort on Bay Point Island. But it doesn’t mean the island is out of harm’s way.

Since 2016, Bay Point Island LLC has attempted to develop on the island.

In April 2020, the LLC’s application showed the island’s owners and developers intended to spend $100 million to build dozens of beach bungalows, spas and restaurants, functioning as an environmentally friendly project by luxury hotel operator Six Senses. A solar field, 10 septic fields and stormwater ponds were also in the plans for the island that currently has no infrastructure. The project would’ve included about 50 acres of the mostly vacant island.

By September that year, the Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeals denied Bay Point Island LLC’s request for a permit that would have allowed the resort a special ecotourism use under current zoning. The board listed a plethora of concerns.

The board said developers didn’t explain how plans aligned with the county’s comprehensive plan, how they fit the character of nearby St. Helena Island and how the project would minimize environmental effects on traffic, infrastructure and public services, according to previous Island Packet reporting. Further, Bay Point Island LLC failed to demonstrate to resort operators how it would meet ecotourism requirements, the board said.

Environmentalists spoke out. So did Gov. Henry McMaster, former U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham, state Sen. Chip Campsen and state Rep. Shannon Erickson. And several nonprofits vehemently opposed the project.

Some pointed to a lack of infrastructure, including emergency services, and no way to get to the island without a plane or boat. Others noted the island’s high erosion rate, shifting shoreline and saltwater intrusion issues.

In opposition of every version of this project since 2016, the Hilton Head Island Audubon said the proposal would’ve been detrimental to the island’s bird population. Bay Point Island can hold as many as 8,000 shorebirds during the winter months and The National Audubon Society recognizes it as a nationally designated Important Bird Area.

Septic fields would’ve been an “environmental catastrophe” with sea level rise, the Coastal Conservation League said. The group also identified that the proposed solar field for the resort would not have even generated enough electricity to run it.

In November 2020, Bay Point Island LLC filed an appeal in the 14th Judicial Circuit Court. Circuit Court Judge Marvin Dukes’ July 2022 decision upheld that of the Beaufort County board decision.

On Tuesday, the South Carolina Court of Appeals issued an order to dismiss the developer’s appeal.

The attorney handling the appeal for Bay Point Island LLC was not immediately available Thursday for comment as to why the appeal was dropped.

“The developer’s decision to walk away from their appeal of the permit denial for a luxury resort on Bay Point Island is a major victory for the people of Beaufort County and for the flora and fauna that thrive on this dynamic, undeveloped barrier island in its natural state,” said Jessie White, South Coast Office Director at Coastal Conservation League.

While the appeal dismissal is a big step for environmentalists across the state in the long-winded fight to preserve the island, they know it may not be over.

Other concerns looming

The proposed development by Bay Point Island LLC is now off the table, meaning the exact luxury resort project on the island cannot be posed again. However, they can come back with a different proposal, said Leslie Lenhardt, South Carolina Environmental Law Project attorney.

Lenhardt, who represents the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association, said a septic permit granted to Bay Point Island LLC by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control is another concern. The permit was issued on a lot that, under a zoning permit granted in November 2021, allowed for a 4,000-square-foot villa on the island. The home is separate from the resort parcel.

Installation of a septic system on a dynamic and low-lying island, with sandy soil, poses a risk of contamination to surrounding waters and to marine life, according to SCELP.

The fishing association’s appeal says the state violated the Freedom of Information Act by not providing notice when the permit was filed, thus preventing it from filing an appeal on time.

“Not only is the septic tank inappropriate on the island, but also DHEC has shirked its duty to produce public documents that were clearly requested,” Lenhardt said previously.

The appeal is pending.

As it’s platted now, the only way to ensure Bay Point’s protection is through a conservation easement, or ownership through the state or land trust, White said.

Though, White added, that all hinges on a willing seller.

Ultimate protection of Bay Point is what St. Helena Island native Marquetta Goodwine, also known as Queen Quet of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, wants.

“We pray that the land will now officially become the ‘preserve’ that it is zoned as by Beaufort County and be conserved, preserved and protected for future generations of not only the native people here, but also the future generations of sea creatures and birds,” she said.