Beaufort County planning officials reverse earlier decision on development, allow planning to move forward for ecotourism-styled resort
By Mindy Lucas
Reversing its earlier decision, Beaufort County’s planning department has given the go-ahead to developers wanting to build an ecotourism resort on Bay Point Island.
After receiving a newly submitted application, members of the county’s Staff Review Team (SRT) gave approval to a conceptual plan for the high-end resort at their most recent meeting, saying the project now satisfies the county’s definition of ecotourism.
“The decision today … is not any type of endorsement of the development of the special use on the island,” Beaufort County’s Community Development Department Director Eric Greenway said.
Greenway went on to say planners would still have to go before the Zoning Board of Appeals and a public hearing on the project.
The “virtual meeting” aired on The County Channel and the county’s Facebook page on Tuesday, May 5.
In December, SRT members said the plans did not fit the county’s definition of ecotourism and asked project planners to revise and resubmit plans for the $100 million project.
The plan now, SRT members noted, has the endorsement of The International Ecotourism Society (TIES). According to its website, TIES was founded in 1990 and has been “on the forefront of the development of Ecotourism, providing guidelines and standards, training, technical assistance, and educational resources.”
Located south of St. Helena Island, Bay Point Island – currently undeveloped – is accessible only by boat or plane. Most guests would fly into Hilton Head and would then be ferried over to Bay Point from Skull Creek Marina, project representatives have said.
The 50-acre resort would feature small villas made of wooden post and beam construction designed to blend in with the environment, planners have said. In addition, plans show several cultural wellness centers, a restaurant and canteen, cooking school and office space.
Six Senses, a high-end global hotel resort and spa company would operate the proposed resort. The company, which specializes in ecotourism and sustainability according to it website, currently operates 17 resort properties around the world, some in such sensitive environments as the Seychelles.
The island currently has no infrastructure in terms of roads, electrical service, waste water treatment or water service, Greenway said at the May 5 meeting, adding that because of that, the utility plan is “a big issue” for the planning board.
The project’s planners took members through the specifics of those plans which now include a solar farm, rainwater collection system and composting system.
The project has met with push back from residents, community leaders and environmental groups who say the development would negatively impact an already fragile ecosystem.
At the first public hearing held in October with property owners and developers of the project, a representative of the Coastal Conservation League said the project did not take into account erosion, rising sea levels and the increased frequency of hurricanes.
In addition, the representative said that ultimately the approval of such a development would set a dangerous precedent in that it would open the area to resort-style ecotourism.
“I would say all of that still stands,” said Juliana Smith, South Coast Project Manager for the Coastal Conservation League.
While project planners have included additional detail in this most recent proposal, the added information didn’t change the league’s position, Smith said.
“The island is still not the place for that large of a footprint or this type of development project,” she said.
Planners also failed to include or consult the area’s scientists, biologists or conservation experts before compiling the protection plan included in the proposal, she said.
“Essentially, this is the first time the ecotourism special use has been pursued and the requirements that have been outlined for that by the county still really leave a broad interpretation of what ecotourism is and what it is not,” she said.
Art Krebs, a member of the resort’s development team, took issue with the perception of the resort’s intention.
“The main focus on this is really the community and nature,” he said, adding that in the past there’s been “quite a bit of information that has been thrown around without really understanding the purpose” of the project.
“The purpose of this project is to preserve and conserve the island to its maximum possibilities,” he said at the May 5 meeting.
Krebs went on to say the project would allow for a number of benefits to the community including jobs and long-term benefits and would be opening the island to the world.
“Not only as an ecotourism destination but as a learning point,” he said, adding that the resort’s planners would like to create preserves, institutes for education or educational opportunities for children.
SRT members at the May 5 meeting asked for additional details on the type of composting system developers intended to use and requested additional specifics on its stormwater collection plan.
At the end of the meeting, Greenway polled members who all gave approval to the conceptual plan pending the requests for additional details on plans were met.
In the days following the May 5 meeting, additional meetings with various county officials, environmental groups, business and civic groups and the project’s developers were held.
The Zoning Board of Appeals will now take up the project proposal in a public meeting tentatively scheduled for June 25, but officials have said that meeting will not be held until the county resumes with in-person public hearings to give the public a chance to weigh in.