St. Helena residents, leaders rally against gated community, golf course
By Mike McCombs
For the second time in five days, St. Helena Island citizens, local politicians, conservation leaders and others filled the County Council Chamber on Monday, Jan. 9, at the Beaufort County Administration Building hoping to speak out against a text amendment to the St. Helena Cultural Overlay Protection (CPO) zone.
Though, no matter how County Administrator Eric Greenway and staff have framed the issue, particularly in comments to the County’s Planning Commission on Thursday, Jan. 5, they are actually more specifically rallying to stop a proposed golf course and gated community on Pine Island and in St. Helenaville.
Ultimately, Beaufort County’s Community Services and Land Use Committee decided Monday, to postpone action for more research and discussion with the community.
Chairwoman Alice Howard, who was also present at Thursday’s meeting, explained to the large crowd in attendance that the amendment was up for discussion, but that she intended to make a motion to postpone consideration of the item until the Committee’s April 10 meeting.
“Item No. 12 is a proposal to amend the St. Helena Cultural Overlay Protection zone on St. Helena. When we get to that item,” Howard said, “I am going to ask for a motion to postpone Consideration of the item until our April meeting and to refer the matter to the Cultural Protection Overlay District Committee which we formed in November 2022 to study the existing ordinance with our legal department and with other outside entities … to suggest provisions which can be added to reinforce the overlay’s purpose and to improve the protection it provides St. Helena and the surrounding islands.
“When it comes back from the CPO we will place it on our agenda and take public comment.”
Vice Chair York Glover agreed with Howard.
“I support Chairwoman Howard’s decision to postpone this matter until our April meeting,” Howard said. “The Cultural Protection Overlay District Committee needs more time to study the existing ordinance with the legal department and make sure we are doing everything within our power as County Council to monitor development projects and make sure we protect St. Helena and the surrounding islands.”
Developer Elvio Tropeano, representing Pine Island GC, LLP, has asked the County for a change to the zoning map to remove the culturally important Pine Island and St. Helenaville properties, nearly 500 acres, from the CPO to build a private, gated community and an 18-hole golf course. The CPO specifically forbids both gated communities and golf courses nine holes or larger.
Because of time constraints, and the fact the action was going to be postponed, public comments were limited to 15 minutes.
Among the speakers was Tom Mikell, representing the Hanna family, who owns the land. He said in a statement he gave to the committee that, “the family is confused how such extreme restrictions on the use of private property can be imposed.”
Monday’s meeting was markedly different from Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting, which saw more than 200 people attend, the crowd overflowing into the hall. There were more than 2½ hours of public comments.
From the start of his comments, Greenway tried to separate the text amendment to the CPO from the proposed Pine Island project.
“While everyone thinks this is related to the Pine Island issue, this is not being driven by the Pine Island request,” Greenway told the committee, though at least two representatives of the potential developer were present.
Greenway said the amendment was proposed solely because of concerns that the current CPO language leaves the County open to lawsuits, and he contended the developer agreed to pause while the County amended the text in an effort to strengthen the CPO.
But the text amendment, if anything, seems to weaken the CPO. Currently, the CPO forbids Restricted Access (Gated) Communities, Resorts and Golf Courses consisting of 9 holes or more. The text amendment actually allows for exceptions to these restrictions if 1) the land contains 50 or more acres of “highland,” which is not defined, 2) there is a negotiated Development Agreement with the Beaufort County Council, which takes the community out of the equation, or 3) there are limitations for use that protect the CPO.
Critics at the meeting accused Greenway and the County of negotiating a deal with the developers behind closed doors over the past year, and now softening the CPO to guarantee they can close the deal.
“I’m not an attorney or anything,” said Lily Harris of St. Helena Island, “but that yellow portion that was highlighted (the amendment), seemed to me that it was in favor of the developers. That’s all I wanted to say.”
Queen Quet of the Gullah Geechee Nation was the inaugural CPO District Chairperson for more than 5 years and is once again on the CPO District Committee.
“We were told then that if Beaufort County initiated the CPO district, that Beaufort County would be sued,” she said. “We said, ‘Bring it on.’ Now here I am again standing in essentially in the same spot, all of this time later, hearing essentially the same things.”
She also disputed claims that the CPO District Committee reviewed the documents at an early December meeting.
Amy Armstong, the Director of the S.C. Environmental Law Project who has been a litigator for 20 years, spoke on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League. She said the language of the CPO was already very clear.
“(There are) pretty simple and straightforward restrictions,” she said. “There are three uses that are very clearly prohibited. And what I heard this evening from planing staff is what we call in my field, legal gymnastics.”
Mayor Stephen Murray said development agreements tie the hands of the community and are not the proper mechanism to protect St. Helena. He suggested public conservation funds might be used to protect the properties.
In all, roughly three dozen people spoke with only one supporting the amendment or development.
In addition to those named other speakers in opposition to the amendment included Executive Director of the S.C. Coastal Conservation League Faith Rivers James, Victoria Smalls of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission, Cynthia Jenkins of the Historic Beaufort Foundation, Bernie Wright of Penn Center and Chief Sekhu Hadjo Gentile, leader of the Yamassee Indian tribe.
In addition, there were two petitions signed by a total of more than 8,000 Beaufort County citizens opposed to the development of Pine Island and St. Helenaville.
Gov. Henry McMaster also wrote a letter opposing the development of Pine Island and St. Helenaville.
“It is my fear that changes to the CPO, which has protected St. Helena from this type of development since 1999, will signal ‘open season’ to other developers and create a domino effect on St. Helena Island and beyond,” McMaster wrote. “It is my opinion that careful consideration of the benefits of development weighed against the certain damage to this pristine, historic, and culturally significant land will yield a decision to leave the CPO untouched.”
One speaker seemed to sum up St. Helena Island residents’ fears as a whole.
“Everybody knows, everybody in this room knows, if Pine Island is developed, it’s the beginning of the end (for St. Helena).”
Mike McCombs is the Editor of The Island News and can be reached at TheIslandNews@gmail.com.