Beaufort County should reject Bay Point development

in Voices by

EDITOR’S NOTE

Rep. Joe Cunningham (SC-01) on Monday urged the Beaufort County Zoning Board of Appeals to reject plans to develop a luxury resort on Bay Point Island. In a letter sent to Vice Chairman Kevin Mack of the Beaufort Country Zoning Board of Appeals, Cunningham called on the Board to deny the special use permit as proposed by the developer, Bay Point Island, LLC, arguing the project does not meet true ecotourism standards.

Dear Vice Chairman Mack:

I am writing to express my concerns regarding the luxury resort proposed for development on Bay Point Island as an “ecotourism” venture. I urge you to critically consider several problematic implications and detrimental impacts this project presents.

Bay Point Island is a small, low-lying, erosional, barrier island subjected to the persistent forces of the Atlantic Ocean and the Port Royal Sound. As one of only a handful of undeveloped barrier islands in South Carolina, it represents an increasingly rare and invaluable natural resource in our great state. As is, the island provides beneficial ecosystem services as a refuge for imperiled wildlife, a source of commercial and recreational fisheries, and a buffer from increasingly frequent and intense storms to the surrounding communities in Beaufort County. All of this is provided by the island while posing no financial burden to Beaufort County taxpayers.

Developing a large-scale resort, and introducing extensive permanent infrastructure where none currently exists, will compromise each of the valuable benefits the island naturally provides. At over 66,000 square feet of proposed building space, including 50 bungalows, 4 spas, 3 restaurants, a retail center, a cooking school, and more, the proposed resort will potentially require ten septic fields (though the developers have recently informed my staff they would prefer packaged wastewater plants), more than 22,000 square feet of solar fields, and 100,000 gallons of fresh water to operate daily. I am concerned that the construction alone, not to mention the ongoing maintenance of the resort, poses a high likelihood of causing irreparable damage to the island. And, when the infrastructure is ultimately threatened by rising seas and volatile storms and hurricanes, the financial burden of cleaning, repairing, and protecting a private investment and providing evacuation and emergency services will inevitably fall to the taxpayers of Beaufort County.

Bay Point and its surrounding tidal marshes and inlets are a designated “Important Bird Area” by the National Audubon Society. The island historically hosts nearly 8,000 overwintering and migrating shorebirds each year, including federally threatened red knots and piping plovers, and state-listed Wilson’s plovers and least terns. It is also the nesting site of, most recently, over 100 threatened loggerhead sea turtles’ nests. Each of these species is incredibly sensitive to human-driven changes to their habitats. The decline of their populations as a result of coastal development is well-documented and understood. The notion that putting a resort on Bay Point Island would in any way benefit these vulnerable species by foisting humans upon their habitat, as has been argued in the special use application submitted for this project, is a stretch.

The introduction of utilities on an undeveloped barrier island presents its own set of environmental consequences. Septic tanks utilize freshwater bacteria to operate. Exposure to saltwater, an inevitable consequence of being situated at a tidally-impacted low elevation, will render these systems inoperable, leading to contamination of the island’s sandy soils and surrounding marshes. The health of the island’s ecosystems, the marsh’s fisheries, and visitors to the island could be put at risk. While septic tanks will impair surface water quality, the proposed well that will serve a portion of the development’s estimated 100,000-gallon daily water needs will threaten groundwater resources by tapping into an aquifer already facing saltwater intrusion impacts. What’s more, there’s no guarantee on behalf of the developers that the aquifer will have the capacity to service the needs of the resort. Regardless, if developed as planned, the resort could impose sudden and toxic run-off into the near pristine marshes of Bay Point, detrimentally impacting fish, mollusk, and crustacean populations. The plan to provide utilities to the luxury resort is, at best, inadequate, and, at worst, an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen.

Also of concern is the fact that the proposal fails to consider impacts to the surrounding communities of the island, both military and cultural resources. Bay Point is situated just downriver from the military base at Parris Island and is a mere 15 miles south of the Marine Corps Air Station. The Federal government has invested billions of dollars in Beaufort County to support the Parris Island military base and the Marine Corps Air Station. The developers of the island have claimed to implement and utilize a heli-pad and helicopter in the event of medical emergencies on the island. There may be the potential for this heli-pad to interfere with military operations, and this has not been addressed in the application to the Zoning Board. Even without the helicopters, the displacement of massive flocks of shorebirds could create potentially dangerous situations for training pilots.

Finally, and importantly, are impacts to the immediately adjacent Gullah/Geechee communities on neighboring St. Helena Island who have relied on Bay Point and its surrounding marshes for sustenance and commercial fishing for generations. Such impacts are of significant concern and have not received adequate consideration. From the start, Queen Quet, queen and Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee nation, has expressed grave concerns regarding the impact of the proposed resort on the cultural and natural resources of the area. So, too, has the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association. Indeed, a petition in opposition to the proposed resort initiated by Queen Quet has over 27,000 signatures as of the date of this letter.

For these reasons, I am asking you to uphold Beaufort County’s current vision of the island as a nature preserve, to recognize it is an inappropriate location for a resort development, and to deny the special use permit as proposed by Bay Point Island, LLC. In the end, true ecotourism would, at a minimum, amplify the history and culture of our community and protect and preserve our natural resources. As proposed, the current project does not seem to meet that standard.