Local groups react, while state legislators call into question county’s use of unelected third party in code
By MINDY LUCAS
The opposition to building an ecotourism resort on a barrier island in Beaufort County has received a big boost from South Carolina’s chief executive officer.
In a two-page letter dated Aug. 18 and addressed to Zoning Board Vice Chairman Kevin Mack, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster said the Bay Point project would have a “detrimental impact on the state’s resources and the taxpayers of Beaufort County.”
“South Carolina’s mountains, beaches, sea island and marshes are among the most beautiful in the nation, drawing 29 million people to South Carolina each year and driving a $22.6 billion tourism industry – one of our largest,” McMaster wrote.
“We are stewards of these assets, and it is our duty to protect them in a manner that is sustainable, responsible and consistent with the incomparable cultural and environmental heritage which distinguishes our state from others,” the governor said. “I believe the proposed development is incompatible with these goals.”
The governor went on to question whether the proposed development is an example of ecotourism.
“Even a smaller version of this project would not be acceptable, in my opinion,” he said. “Quite simply, I don’t think such developments are what our people had in mind when they envisioned ‘ecotourism.’”
McMaster concluded his letter by urging the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals to reject the development proposal.
Meanwhile, two state legislators have also weighed in on the project – not only agreeing with the governor’s assertions but calling into question the use of The International Ecotourism Society’s (TIES) definition of ecotourism in Beaufort County’s development code.
In a letter dated Aug. 19, also addressed to Mack, Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, and Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, called the use and delegation of authority to an unelected third party “highly unusual” and “constitutionally suspect.”
“The South Carolina Supreme Court has held numerous times … that it is constitutionally impermissible for a legislative body to delegate legislative authority to another …,” they stated, adding that the section of the code appears to do so.
In July, The Island News reported that The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) has a history of troubling allegations, namely that it is no longer a nonprofit organization as it purports to be on its website, and that TIES’ Executive Director Jon Bruno, who once served as the organization’s finance manager, does not have a background in ecotourism.
Campsen and Erickson expressed concerns with these same allegations and concluded their letter by saying the ordinance attributes an “excessive amount of weight to the discretion of an unelected official.”
“This is not prudent public policy,” they said.
Local conservation groups react
The governor’s and legislators’ letters hit like a thunderbolt in the community last week – especially among conservation groups that have been opposed to the development project.
“We are so grateful to Gov. McMaster, Sen. Campsen and Rep. Erickson for weighing in on the proposed resort for Bay Point,” said Juliana Smith, South Coast Project Manager with the Coastal Conservation League.
Smith said the letters served to reinforce concerns the league and “many other organizations” have had with the project since its inception.
Those groups include the South Carolina Environmental Law Project, the Gullah/Geechee Fishing Association, Historic Beaufort Foundation, South Carolina Audubon, Beaufort County Open Land Trust, Hilton Head Island Land Trust, Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition, Hilton Head Audubon, Spring Island Trust, Port Royal Sound Foundation and Defenders of Wildlife.
“A resort on Bay Point Island undoubtedly will result in detrimental impacts not just to the wildlife and habitat, but also to the people of Beaufort County,” Smith said. “True ecotourism doesn’t damage communities, habitats, and natural and cultural resources, but that’s exactly what’s being proposed here. The best thing for Bay Point is to protect it in perpetuity for all to enjoy.”
Hilton Head Audubon President John Bloomfield also shared his thanks in an email sent to members last week.
“We would like to thank all of our members who have taken the time to write their elected officials, send letters to the editor, share Facebook posts and advocate in person on this important project,” he said.
Since efforts to develop the island heated up four years ago, the group has worked hard to make its opposition known, he said.
Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation, who was personally mentioned in the governor’s letter was also pleased to hear of his written support.
The area has been used for generations for subsistence fishing and is culturally significant to the Gullah/Geechee people both she and the governor said.
“I thanked God for this moment,” she said, adding that she had been contacted by the governor’s office to see if she would speak to him on the issue.
“He told me then that he would stand with us to protect Bay Point and to ensure that we do not lose Gullah/Geechee culture in our state,” she said.
Developers Not Happy
While many were pleased to learn of the letters from the governor and area legislators last week, at least one group was not.
“Our reaction was surprise at first,” said Hilton Head Island attorney Tom Taylor who represents Bay Point Island LLC, owners of the island.
“We had not been contacted by either the governor or anyone from his staff to discuss the project,” he said.
Taylor said the group’s members would welcome a discussion with the governor because they believe he was “misinformed on a number of items.”
“Quite candidly, some of the points the governor makes we believe are simply wrong in so far as the project, and we continue to believe that the project will be a very, very good step forward for ecotourism in Beaufort County and for the state,” he said.
Taylor went on to say that the group is the target of a “well organized campaign to derail the project.”
“Which we’re fighting very hard against,” he said.
In the end, it comes down to property rights, he said, and took issue with the idea that such a project could be a burden on taxpayers – whether from the expense of beach re-nourishment due to erosion or an environmental catastrophe due to a storm or hurricane.
“I would like for you to tell me $1 of expense from this project that is on the taxpayer’s back right now,” he said. “There are no roads, there are no schools, there are no Beaufort County-driven services other than what happens in a catastrophe.”
He said if a storm or hurricane were to hit Bay Point, it would be the same for anyone else on other such barrier islands as Hilton Head or Fripp Island.
“It’s preposterous to take the position that all of a sudden this community has discovered that building up on a barrier island is going to be dangerous,” he said. “That doesn’t make any sense at all. We’ve done it throughout the county.”
The Zoning Board of Appeals is set to meet Sept. 24, but whether that meeting will be held remains to be seen.
The board’s August meeting was canceled since members felt it was inappropriate to hold a meeting on Bay Point virtually, Beaufort County’s Community Development Department Director Eric Greenway said.
“If we aren’t able to do it in person, I will recommend and advocate that we do not hold that hearing,” he said.
Since July 17, all Beaufort County buildings have been closed to the public due to Covid-19.
Read the full letters here:
Above: The last large public forum on the Bay Point resort project before the pandemic was held in October at the St. Helena Branch Library. The project could be taken up at the next zoning board meeting, Sept. 24, but whether that meeting will occur remains to be seen. Officials have said they would prefer hearings on Bay Point be held in person. Photo by Bob Sofaly.